There are two competing visions of what America will be going forward.
One of those visions is the more traditional one (I’m being descriptive here — not endorsing it. I think the evidence of history supports overwhelmingly that this vision has been the predominant one for most of that history.)
Under this “traditional” vision, The United States was begun by, and has been run for, the benefit of white Europeans, from long before it was an independent nation.
The human civilizations the original conquerers encountered were ruthlessly conquered, enslaved and swept aside in order to transform America and the rest of the Western Hemisphere into Europe’s “New World”.
Non-Europeans were tolerated when they could serve the interests of white Europeans — Africans were imported, enslaved and put to work in the plantation system in the south; Chinese did the most dangerous work on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, and so on — but the understanding was that they served at the pleasure of Europeans, and that the civilization they toiled in did not “belong” to them.
White Europeans were allowed to immigrate with few barriers; others (often including even Europeans of a darker hue such as many Sicilians) faced much more difficult hurdles.
This vision of American only began to be seriously questioned in the mid-20th century — my pet theory is that the turning point was America’s encounter with the radically evil racial ideology of Nazi Germany. It made plain the evils of racism in a way (particularly given the shocking photographic evidence of emaciated faces staring forlorn through barbed wire, or being tossed into mass graves) that could no longer be glossed over or denied.
There is a competing vision of what America can be, and though this vision only began to be seriously enacted in the mid-20th century, its roots also go far deeper into American history.
This is the vision that abolitionists had of an American where no one was a slave. It was a vision that formed the premise of the idea that is “self-evident that all men are created equal.”
While there were union organizers who were white supremacists, this competing vision of America saw that workers of every race shared the same foe — a greedy, entitled over-class that desired only to exploit them. (This is a major reason why the South is so virulently anti-union — it radically threatens the very foundations — even more so the purpose — of the traditional southern racial caste system.)
Under this competing vision, America ought to be a place where people from every corner of the globe can come and make a civilization — where every immigrant brings a civilizational “brick” from back home, and with those bricks builds a temple to what is best in every civilization scattered throughout the world.
People with this vision also recognize that a huge amount of what makes American culture distinctively American — and gives it the dynamism and magnetism it has had over the decades — is the contributions of blacks and immigrants. Can you imagine an America without Jazz? Without Blues? Or Soul, or R&B, or rock and roll?
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., had this vision of America. In his most famous speech, he said:
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”