Guest Op-Ed: Holidays and Freedoms

By State Sen. William Brownsberger

The recent hate crimes in Belmont, Winthrop, and Brighton, so close to home and so near the fourth of July, have me thinking about the meaning of our national holidays.

Seven of our eleven federal holidays celebrate our struggles for freedom and justice.  Each of our national struggles have occurred in the context of broader international liberation struggles. 

Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday celebrate our declaration of independence from King George and honor those who fought our revolutionary war to uphold that declaration.  Our revolution was just the first of many revolutions to replace the autocratic rule of European monarchs with government by the people.

Our new holiday, Juneteenth, celebrates the final end of slavery in the United States.  Over 600,000 died in our civil war.  By comparison, only 25,000 died in our revolutionary war.   Almost as many soldiers died in the civil war as in all our other wars combined.   Roughly 10 percent of the men between 18 and 45 died in the civil war and many more were maimed for life. The union soldiers sacrificed to free four million people from slavery.

It took a horrific convulsion to expunge the stain of slavery that ran so deep in our nation and to enshrine liberty for all in our constitution.   It is fitting that we finally have a holiday that specifically celebrates that milestone in our progress.   

Martin Luther King Day celebrates a great leader and those who struggled alongside him to make freedom real for African Americans by dismantling the state and local laws discriminating against them.  

The struggle for universal civil rights and freedoms continues to this day, but it is broader and more complex.  It is not just about changing laws.  It is about changing the behavior of individuals and institutions who may discriminate against not only African Americans but other minorities and/or women.   All nations that are committed in good faith to basic human rights continue to struggle to realize those rights universally for their citizens.

The recent hateful incidents diminish the freedom of all minorities.  Whether one is visibly Black, visibly Asian, visibly an orthodox Jew or visibly transgender, one should be able to walk the streets free from the fear of random violence.

All of us, whether healthy or unhealthy, act based on the ideas we are exposed to.  That is why it is so important that all of us speak out against violence and broadcast our appreciation for diversity.

We celebrate and thank the law enforcement officers who respond when hateful violence unfolds.  They, like our soldiers, put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms.  Veterans Day and Memorial Day are our holidays to remember those who have served and those who have given their lives to win and protect our freedom.  On those days, we also honor our public safety personnel.

Labor Day honors public safety personnel, teachers, and other unionized workers, but more broadly honors all those who fought for better wages and working conditions in the international labor movement.  It is easy to forget across the distance of years just how low wages often were and how cruel the workplace could be.  The labor movement fought and won great victories to create the relative comfort that many of us now enjoy.  As in the civil rights movement, there is more to be done.

Columbus Day has become controversial for good reason.  Columbus’ revealed the Americas to Europeans, but he did is so in the service of a monarch bent on acquiring resources for royal aggrandizement.  Those who came after him destroyed the great pre-Colombian civilizations in the Americas.  I support rethinking that holiday to align it better with the consistent values expressed by our other holidays.

The remaining three federal holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day — bring families together to enjoy the freedoms we have been blessed with.William Brownsberger is a State Senator for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts representing the Back Bay.

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