45 words that changed the world

Published 1:42 pm Saturday, July 4, 2009

Though we may celebrate it for different reasons, the holiday we celebrate this weekend is an important one. Some of us will celebrate it simply because it marks the founding of our nation. Others will view it as an occasion to celebrate American history and culture and ideals.

As I watch the fireworks, I will see each explosion, each flash as symbolic of an argument, a conflict somewhere in this nation I so love.

I will envision the lone, angry protester I saw carrying a placard in front of the White House when I traveled once to Washington to interview then-President Jimmy Carter. I will recall a meeting about funding for a bicycle path between two towns, and the passion and even anger of those in favor and those opposed. I will think about things I know of only from reading about them or watching historic clips on TV – about a sit-in at a lunch counter or about freedom riders fleeing a burning bus.

I will think about Eugene V. Debs and William Randolph Hearst and H.L. Mencken and Carrie Nations and Malcolm X and Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King and many, many others who gave up comfort and peace to speak out for what they believed.

And, whether or not I agreed or disagreed with what any of those people or groups espoused, I will celebrate their having had the guts to stand up and say what they said or do what they did.

More, I will celebrate that they had the right to say or do whatever they said or did.

I will celebrate those who, more than 200 years ago, wrote:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Those 45 words have done more to shape America and the modern world than anything else I can think of.

They comprise, of course, the First (and most important) Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

Of those 45 words, the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization more often than not on the unpopular side of an issue, has said, “These rights have, throughout our history, nurtured our democracy and made us a beacon to the whole world. But, as history has played out, they’ve been hard-won rights that we continually fight for and renew.”

Over and over again, throughout our country, in spite of the lip service we all pay to the First Amendment, though, somebody slaps it in the face.

Every time a government body sneaks into a closed meeting to talk about public business, those officials violate your rights.

The whole uniquely American concept of open government, a government owned by and accessible to the people, derives from the First Amendment. It is the concept at the heart of every open meetings and open records law, be that law state or national.

It is the concept at the heart of the great, unending, loud argument that is life in America.

God bless it.

The founders of this nation envisioned and created a country where public discourse, even argument, was not just tolerated, but encouraged. They felt so strongly about it that they codified it in those 45 immortal words.

The world has not been the same since.

David Sullens is president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications LLC and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.