Photograph by Aaron Burson via Unsplash

“Freedom is a mighty fine thing”

July 4, 2024

This essay begins with a reflection from a scene in the TV version of Alex Haley’s book entitled ROOTS: The Journey of an American Family.[1] The story revolves around a person named Kunta Kinte who is captured near his village in the West African country of Gambia and transported to a slave market in Baltimore, Maryland where he is sold to the highest bidder. In the TV version, more than in the book, there is also a central character named Fiddler who had been born into slavery on the very plantation where Kunta Kinte was being taken.

Here was the story of one person who was born free and wanted to be free again, and another person born into lifelong bondage with no idea what freedom was or how he might ever attain it. In a dramatic scene, Fiddler dies while sitting with Kunta; death being his only means of escaping the grip of enslavement in this country during those years. Holding Fiddler’s dead body in his arms, Kunta Kinte says, “Ain’t freedom a mighty fine thing?” Fiddler did not resist his enslavement. He did not plot an escape or plan a slave uprising like Denmark Vesey or Gabriel Prosser in this country or Toussaint Louverture in Haiti. He lived and died in bondage, and only with death could he know that freedom is a mighty fine thing.

It must be remembered that ROOTS was written against the backdrop of the thirteen British colonies seeking their freedom from want they considered to be the tyranny of King George III and the British Empire. How ironic, that these two stories are intertwined. One group of British colonists fighting a war to end their oppression and secure their freedom, while steadfastly holding another group of people in lifelong slavery. Nothing better expresses this hypocrisy than the words of Patrick Henry of Virginia. Most Americans are familiar with his declaration: “Give me liberty or give me death.” People are less familiar with these words from that same Patrick Henry who, when talking about freedom for the enslaved Africans living in the country at that time said, “We ought to possess them in the manner we inherited them from our ancestors. Blacks’ freedom is incompatible with the felicity of our country.”[2] Freedom is a mighty fine thing, but who gets to enjoy its benefits?

When the Second Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution with the idea of the right to bear arms and the need for a well-regulated militia, that right to bear arms was denied to black Americans, and the role of the well-regulated militia was largely to suppress and prevent slave insurrections.[3] When the U.S. Constitution decided to count enslaved Africans as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and Congressional representation in the slaveholding states, that same clause included these four haunting words, “Excluding Indians not taxed.” From its inception, the United States never intended that Native Americans had anything to look forward to in this country except annihilation, exploitation, and forced removal from their ancestral homelands to life on remote and desolate reservations. Freedom is a mighty fine thing, but who gets to enjoy its benefits?

As we enjoy July 4, 2024, it should be noted that there are a great many freedoms that most Americans, Black, white, male, and female want that are being denied or withheld.

As we enjoy July 4, 2024, it should be noted that there are a great many freedoms that most Americans, Black, white, male, and female want that are being denied or withheld for one reason or another. Over 80% of the people in this country want some limits placed on gun purchases, what kinds of weapons can be purchased and carried, and who can have access to those weapons. We remember what happened just two years ago at a 4th of July parade in suburban Highland Park, Illinois near Chicago where seven people were shot and killed by an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a weapon that most Americans would like to have banned in this country.

However, no such restrictions are on the horizon. In fact, the United States Supreme Court recently lifted a federal ban of the sale and use of a device called a bump stock that converts a semiautomatic rifle into a military-style automatic weapon that fires hundreds of rounds of bullets within seconds. In the state of Ohio where I live it is easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver’s license. An 18-year-old person can buy and carry a gun without a background check and without any formal training in the use of that weapon. Whose freedom, what freedom are we advancing with decisions and policies like these?

After the death of George Floyd in 2020, the nation seemed poised  for some form of meaningful police reform regarding the use of excessive and deadly force. Then an event even more terrible occurred in Akron, Ohio in 2022. City police pursued a man named Jayland Walker who they were attempting to pull over for a traffic stop. When Walker did not pull over, a chase ensued. Police falsely claimed he had fired a gun at them during the chase. When he finally stopped and exited his car, this unarmed man was shot at by eight police officers and struck with bullets over 60 times. The shooting continued after Walker was lying helplessly on the ground. Freedom is a mighty fine thing, but who gets to enjoy its benefits?

All across the United States, people will pause on Independence Day to consider the words of the Declaration of Independence written by a slaveholder named Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those words served as the basis for declaring freedom from the British Empire on July 4, 1776. This leaves us with the problem experienced then and now, by enslaved Africans, Native Americans, people in police custody, and people who want to live free from the fear of random gun violence. Freedom is a mighty fine thing, but who gets to enjoy its benefits?

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is interim executive minister, Cleveland Baptist Association, American Baptist Churches, USA. He served as president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, New York, from 2011 to 2019.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[1] Alex Haley, ROOTS; The Journey of an American Family, Doubleday Books: Garden City, New York, 1976.

[2] Carol Anderson, THE SECOND: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021, p. 30.

[3] Ibid, p. 28.

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