By Roger Lovette
Nobody has expressed the essence of America more than the artist Norman Rockwell. His pictures are embedded in our hearts. He pictured the Four Freedoms: from fear, from want, worship and speech.
Remember that ugly crowd in New Orleans in the ’60s? Mr. Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With showed it from the perspective of a little black girl walking to her first day of school surrounded by security guards after court-ordered desegregation.
He painted veritably everything. The doctor examining scared kids or a class celebrating their teacher’s birthday. He captured a young couple’s first awkward date. He stirred our memories with a farmer father and his boy waiting with his battered suitcase that would take him away to school.
But the picture that I think of this July 4 week was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, July 7, 1946. The picture captured the long strong arm of the Statue of Liberty holding the torch. The artist added several workmen high up, cleaning the statue’s torch, making sure the flame would burn brightly.
For over a decade this painting has hung in the White House. Since 1994 it has been displayed in the Oval Office and Presidents Clinton and Bush and now Obama walk by the picture daily carrying heavy burdens. We find in Rockwell’s picture a challenge for us all.
That challenge goes all the way back to the beginning of our country. In 1787 that long tedious Constitutional Convention finally ended. As Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall, a Mrs. Powel tugged at his sleeve,” Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin did not hesitate. “A republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
So this July 4 we are all challenged to climb up that long heavy arm of the statue, brush off the dirt and debris and make sure the flame still burns.
Interestingly, the shadow of Miss Liberty falls on Ellis Island, where so many immigrants first landed. The statue and her flame are often the first glimpses that many of these immigrants have of America. But their landing brought disappointment to many.
The Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews and many from Asia were besieged by ugly signs that read: No Jews. No Wops. No Dagos or Japs apply. But despite sometimes-incredible odds, most of these immigrants stayed with it, worked hard and have added richness to the culture and life of America.
So keeping the flame alive, keeping the statue tall and strong and clean for everyone has been hard work for every age. Sometimes we have failed miserably in this task of “liberty and justice for all,” but on our better days we have opened up our hearts and have become a better people.
Many of our citizens are frightened of the immigrants that come to us today. In 2011 Hispanics, blacks, Asians and other minorities accounted for 50.4 percent of the births last year. Three metro areas — Columbus, Ga.; Dallas-Fort Worth; and Vineland-Millville, N.J., joined a growing list of places where a majority of residents are minorities.
The Founding Fathers gave us a bigger challenge than they realized. The “all” of the Constitution has no qualification. To work for the common good of all keeps the torch of freedom burning brightly.
A friend in Memphis, proud of her first grandchild-to-be, sent me a sonogram of that child. In the sonogram you can see clearly a tiny face, hands and feet. The eyes are shut tight.
As I looked at that picture I wondered what kind of a world this baby will be born into. And if the baby was born black or Hispanic or poor or gay or disabled — what then?
Will they find a place for safety for all the babies? Will this be a land where most of the people respect and talk across their divides. Will the statue in New York burn bright and the arm uplifted, clean and strong?
This July 4 we find the possibility of a healthy country is really the work of us all. For our task is to make sure the vision and dream of so many who came from so many places find America 2012 a place they also can call home.
The old book of Micah underlines our challenge best: “They shall all sit under their own vines and under the own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”