Wednesday, July 4, 2018


Here's an "Independence Day" commentary I wrote in my first year as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Believe or not, this piece, which I thought was well-reasoned and rational, elicited calls for my termination, hundreds of complaints and a couple of death threats. In reflection, it's just as pertinent today as it was some 15 years ago.

By Sylvester Brown Jr.  
Originally Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Thursday, 7/3/2003

"NO MATTER THAT patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots."-- Barbara Ehrenreich, author, columnist

Friday is Independence Day. It's a day of celebration, fireworks, brats and longnecks. For many, July Fourth is one big patriotic bash. For me, it's a day of somber reflection and mixed emotions. I'm all for a party but I have one pesky little caveat: I need to know why I'm partying.

Black people had nothing to celebrate on July 4, 1776 -- the official day enacted by Congress. Black "independence" came nearly 100 years later with the passage of the 13th Amendment. But hey, independence is independence, right? While some celebrate freedom from the Brits, I can celebrate freedom from the shackles. Or can I? My problem is finding a guilt-free party on the Fourth. See, I tend to gravitate toward a pretty rebellious bunch. I can't help it. I admire people who challenge injustice, those who want to change the world for the better. But their idea of a party Friday will include shutting down the Metro or demonstrating somewhere else.

Many of my friends challenge U.S. foreign policy. Critics call them "unpatriotic" for opposing the war and "un-American" for criticizing U.S. firms that have profited from it. Does their stance disqualify them from a celebration of patriots?

Like I said, I've always been drawn to discontents. That includes the patriotic rabble-rousers of days gone by. America's radicals are as much responsible for the freedom we enjoy today as anyone. I wonder how many people realize that local dissidents like Eric Vickers, John Chasnoff, Lizz Brown or Bill Ramsey are following an honorable tradition?

It may be easy to dismiss allegations that public dollars are squandered on new educational initiatives. It might be comfortable to ignore charges that minorities aren't getting a fair share of tax-financed construction projects. But wasn't it a response to unfair taxation that led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773? Angry colonists dumped chests of tea into Boston harbor to avoid payment of a British tax. The punitive British response became the catalyst for America's independence movement.

Activists have climbed the Arch and blocked highways to make a point. History has shown us that patriots have risked even more. In 1770, Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution. He was shot and killed in what was later described as the Boston Massacre. In 1776, the British hung Nathan Hale as a spy. On his way to the gallows, Hale uttered words that still inspire activism: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Organizations affiliated with the local American Friends Service Committee mounted many demonstrations before and during the Iraq war. The group was founded by Quakers. Among them was William Penn, who was responsible for helping his brethren escape persecution in England. Convinced that religious tolerance could never be achieved in England, Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682. He called the city his "Holy Experiment" and encouraged women's rights and religious freedom. Penn was jailed several times, lived as a fugitive and died a pauper for his beliefs.

History gives many more examples of patriotism that go against today's popular definition. Today's activists have nothing to apologize for. Patriotism comes in many forms. Some celebrate what the country is, while others celebrate what it has the potential to be.

So party on, St. Louis activists. Fire up the grill and hoist a brew, my fellow Americans. Friday is your day, too. On Saturday, go back to shaking things up and challenging the system. History's patriots would expect nothing less.