So it’s just a wee little bit of an historic week. You know about that whole July 4th Independence Day thing, of course. But this week also marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, one of our country’s most important legislative achievements ever. This week last year, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, the battle that doomed the Southern rebellion and meant the end of slavery in this country. And this was the week where the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed in 1890, where FDR was nominated for president in 1932, and where the landmark labor law that helped create a stronger labor movement and a widely prosperous middle calls was signed into law by FDR in 1935. That’s a lot of big and important stuff happening in American history in the first week of July. Every one of these moments was part of the story of the battle (sometimes violent, sometimes the battle of ideas) this country has been engaging in from the beginning: the battle to create a more perfect union.
This is in part the battle of ideas. Embedded in that remarkable Declaration of Independence were certain core ideas. Equality. Freedom. Justice. Solidarity. Honor. We have been fighting the battle over those ideas ever since- especially over whether those concepts extend to everyone in our society or just an elite chosen few. As I wrote in my book The Progressive Revolution: How The Best In America Came To Be:
“… the power of Jefferson’s words in the crucible of that moment created an explosion that echoed throughout the colonies- and soon thereafter throughout the world. History pivoted at that moment and has been changing ever since. Progressive leaders and revolutionaries have quoted Jefferson’s words more frequently than those of any other writer since 1776. Jefferson’s language about equality and consent of the governed laid down a marker that has been difficult to walk away from, as generation after generation has demanded its place at the table of American democracy.”
History pivoted on ideas, but not just on ideas — on the blood, sweat, and tears of America’s broad working class- the people who, in the phrase Bill Clinton popularized while winning the 1992 campaign “the people who work hard and play by the rules.” Tom Paine, who was a working class artisan himself, had those regular folks who worked hard and played by the rules in mind when he wrote Common Sense, the pamphlet that more than any other single thing moved public opinion dramatically and inspired the revolution. The only reason we won that against-the-odds revolution was because so many of those workers and artisans joined in the fight and hung in there with General Washington during the darkest days.
And it was those same kinds of working class folk that fought and died at Gettysburg, that went to war with Hitler to “make the world safe for democracy.” It was those regular working stiffs FDR and LBJ lifted up with the minimum wage, Social Security, rural electrification, financial reform, the National Labor Relations Act, the GI Bill, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the other reforms of the New Deal and the Great Society. And it was those same blue and pink collar workers who got screwed by the policies of the last 30 years, when big money has mattered way more than working hard and playing by the rules. Bruce Springsteen described what was going on in blue collar America in his haunting, classic song “Youngstown”:
Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two
Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble
He said “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do.”
These mills they built the tanks and bombs
That won this country’s wars
We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for
Here in Youngstown
Here in Youngstown
My sweet Jenny I’m sinkin’ down
Here darlin’ in Youngstown
From the Monongahela valley
To the Mesabi iron range
To the coal mines of Appalachia
The story’s always the same
Seven hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world’s changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
Today I honor the brave men who wrote and voted for that Declaration of Independence, who mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Their courage and ideas were the pivot on which the world changed. But the world also changed — could only have been changed — by America’s working class. So today, I also honor those Americans who fought this country’s wars, who built this country’s schools and roads and bridges, who created this country’s wealth with their hard work and ingenuity. Our politicians and our policies have ill-served most of the working families in this country for way too long now, and it is time to turn that around.
The battle over whether the working class will be included in the American idea invented by Jefferson and those others in Philadelphia 238 years ago this week still rages on.