On the resource-rich Zinn Education Project website, Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools asks us to rethink the 4th of July. He writes:
[T]here is something profoundly inappropriate about blowing off fireworks at a time when the United States is waging war with real fireworks around the world…. U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone have killed more than 200 people, including at least 60 children. And, of course, the U.S. war in Afghanistan drags on and on. The pretend war of celebratory fireworks thus becomes part of a propaganda campaign that inures us—especially the children among us—to the real wars half a world away….
Bigelow invites readers—especially teachers—to investigate other ways to look at July 4th. For example, he suggests employing Ray Raphael’s research depicting a more complete story of the American Revolution. Raphael writes about omissions from American school textbooks of the active participation of lower and middle class Americans in working for independence, as well as the 90 “declarations of independence” from various localities that preceded Jefferson’s version.
I ask my students to consider whether the Revolutionary War itself was even necessary. For years, I have incorporated non-violence strategist Gene Sharp’s March 1976 article, Disregarded History, to enhance students’ understanding of successful nonviolent techniques Americans used in the years preceding the Revolutionary War. As my students formally debate whether the American Revolution was necessary in order for the United States to become independent, we realize there are many legitimate arguments suggesting that the protracted and bloody conflict could have been avoided with continuing economic boycotts and collective nonviolent actions that had already proven effective by 1776. Read about numerous instances of economic and political non-cooperation Sharp details in the section American Colonial Nonviolence, circa 1776.
Teachers also need to help students rethink what the American Revolution meant to American Indians and enslaved Africans. “Should they celebrate July 4th as Independence Day?” I query. In years of asking students to consider this question, only one parent has objected. But to numerous students (and many families) the question was an eye opener, leading to critical and heartfelt exploration of the painful violence toward Indians and enslaved Africans perpetrated by our country’s founders.
Bigelow refers to Frederick Douglass’s 1851 speech about the 4th of July:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity….
Completing the American Revolution for many African Americans is a process still underway. But revolutionary—and nonviolent—action for equal rights is detailed compellingly in the 2001 movie A Force More Powerful and in a 2012 speech by Civil Rights leader Dr. James Lawson. Lawson studied Gandhian nonviolence in India and incorporated techniques of nonviolent direct action in such effective Civil Rights campaigns as lunch counter sit-ins in the American South. To become critically thinking citizens, our students must learn that these stories, too, are part of the American Revolution.
I ask my students to consider whether citizens of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan might look at American soldiers as occupiers—as Americans thought of British soldiers in the 1700s. We compare the “messiness” of the American Revolution with the “messiness” of current revolutions around the world. By considering such diverse aspects of July 4th, are we asking our students to become anti-American? Of course not. Are we asking them to be thoughtful Americans? Yes.
I agree with Bigelow that 4th of July fireworks can be jingoistic and disturbing. But I also use their noise and smell to evoke empathy in my students for their global neighbors—kids like themselves—who live in war zones, who experience American drone attacks, and who experience the shocks of blast after blast—night after night. Is this something our students want for themselves or their fellow children on the planet? Aren’t “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” rights they want for all members of the human family?
Former president Jimmy Carter asks Americans to remember another declaration of rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, establishing “equal rights of all people to life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law and freedom from torture, arbitrary detention or forced exile….” In a June 2012 op-ed piece, Carter bemoans the direction of U.S. foreign policy, with assassinations, drone attacks on civilians, and torture:
At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends….
During my peace education sabbatical year in 2005-06, I asked Norwegian peace mediator Johan Galtung what American youth most need to understand about their role in the world. He answered that most of the world’s citizens want Americans to walk humbly—to realize that the United States is a nation among nations—and that we need to cooperate with the world community. Days like the 4th of July, or September 11th, or the International Day of Peace give us opportunities to awaken a thoughtful and active spirit of American and global citizenship in our students. Let’s empower them to rethink our revolution.
- Link to Bill Bigelow’s 2012 post Rethinking the 4th of July and Frederick Douglass’s speech: http://zinnedproject.org/posts/18505
to Ray Raphael’s 2012 post Re-examining
the Revolution: http://zinnedproject.org/posts/180
- Link to Frederick Douglass’s 1851 The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro: http://zinnedproject.org/posts/11086
- Link to Gene Sharp’s 1976 article Disregarded History: http://www.fragmentsweb.org/fourtx/dishistx.html
- Link to Reverend
James Lawson’s June 2012 keynote speech and resources on nonviolent direct
- Link to Jimmy Carter’s 2012 Op-ed A Cruel and Unusual Record: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/25/opinion/americas-shameful-human-rights-record.html
- Link to teaching resources for human rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: http://teachforpeace.org/care/Universal-Declaration-of-Human-Rights