Some are saying that the American dream is dead. About one-half of millennials believe this to be the case. Some of the presidential candidates talk about it a lot as they speak to a nation that is, in general, feeling very pessimistic about the future. But, I refuse to give in to all the negativity. I believe that the American dream, an ideal that is an intrinsic part of our country, is still very much alive. And, I believe that we need to make certain to celebrate the American dream next week, on February 1st, a day that President Truman proclaimed to be National Freedom Day.
National Freedom Day is not an official holiday. It’s simply referred to as an observance. While some cities have a special ceremony to mark the day, it hasn’t become a well-established American tradition. This is unfortunate because National Freedom Day commemorates the essence of the American dream. It was on February 1, 1865, that President Lincoln signed a joint congressional resolution proposing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that, once ratified, would abolish slavery throughout the United States.
Lincoln took great pride in the proposed amendment, referring to it as “a king’s cure for all the evils”. After signing the joint resolution, the President signed several commemorative copies of the Amendment. His Secretary of State had to remind him that the President does not sign or have any role in the amendment process. The proposed amendment had to be sent to the states for ratification. It would take ten long months for the ratification process to be successfully completed and the 13th Amendment to be officially added to the Constitution.
None of this, however, diminished the President’s spirits. Despite everything that his nation had been through and despite the battle that lay ahead for this important amendment, President Lincoln believed that America’s future was bright.
It was just last week that we remembered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another great American leader who, despite living during tumultuous times, had hope in America.
This hope is captured in King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. His dream, that our country would one day be a place of freedom, peace and racial harmony, captured the same ideal that Lincoln was hoping for on February 1, 1865. This ideal, this unwavering belief that, despite tremendous obstacles, we can work hard and make our country a better place for ourselves and our children, is the essence of the American dream. We are guaranteed nothing, but the dream inspires us to use the freedom and skills we have been given to act, doing what we can to make the dream a reality.
It’s quite interesting that we begin February with National Freedom Day during which we remember President Lincoln’s optimism and we end February with the 88th Academy Awards which, for the second year in a row, will honor only white leading and supporting actors and actresses.
This lack of diversity has outraged many and has encouraged some to boycott the upcoming awards show. Rising above the understandable negativity surrounding the awards ceremony is the inspiring voice of Idris Elba, a black actor who many believe was snubbed by the Academy for not having been nominated for his supporting role in Beasts of No Nation.
Speaking about the lack of diversity among the Oscar nominees, Elba said that, “the USA has the most famous diversity policy of all: It’s called the American dream.” The problem is, Elba explained, the dream is not yet a reality. It wasn’t a reality for Dr. King, Elba stated. Referring to King, Elba said that:
To champion diversity is to champion the American dream. It’s to say that if you work hard and you have great talent, you will have the same chance as anyone else to succeed. It guarantees no more than that, but that in itself is a golden guarantee.
Given Elba’s Oscar snub, he has every reason to be angry, pessimistic and dismiss the concept of the American dream, but he, somehow, someway manages to keep hope alive. Yes, the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards puts a spotlight on the fact that 151 years after President Lincoln proudly signed the joint resolution proposing the 13th Amendment, more than half a century after Dr. King shared his dream with our nation, race and equality are still things we struggle with.
But, as Elba teaches us, this is not reason to despair. Rather, it is reason to pursue the dream – the same dream that Lincoln and King pursued, the dream that is part and parcel of the American dream – to believe in and fight for diversity. By believing in and fighting for a better tomorrow, we live the American dream.
National Freedom Day wouldn’t have made it onto the calendar were it not for Major Richard Robert Wright. Wright was a nine-year-old slave when President Lincoln signed the joint resolution on February 1, 1865. He would go on to lead a prestigious military career, serving as the highest-ranking African-American officer in the Spanish-American War. Later in life, he became a prominent banker. He remained forever grateful for President Lincoln’s determination to change our nation and worked tirelessly to ensure that February 1st was formally recognized as a historical day in America. While he did not live to see National Freedom Day proclaimed by President Truman, Wright’s story embodies what should be celebrated on this special day.
Please set aside some time on February 1st to observe National Freedom Day. Most likely there will be no public celebration in your city, so celebrate on your own!
Take a few minutes to read John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Howard in Atlanta which captures the actual moment Major Wright, then a young, newly freed slave was asked by a U.S military officer: “What shall I tell the children up north about you?” Wright’s response: “Sir, tell them we are rising!”
Check out this ceremonial copy of the 13th Amendment signed by President Lincoln and appreciate his incredible optimism.
Watch Idris Elba’s Beasts of No Nation. Allow the film to speak to you about freedom, admire Elba’s talent and reflect upon his reminder that standing up for our rights is the American dream.
Most importantly, pause to give thanks to those who have continued to believe that we have the ability to do great things. May their hope inspire us all to rise up, live the dream and do our part to make it a reality.
Rabbi Andrew Jacobs has been the spiritual leader of Ramat Shalom Synagogue (www.ramatshalom.org) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida since 2002. He is the founder of ISH (www.findyourish.com), an innovative spiritual source and service that enables all spiritual seekers with opportunities to connect with Jewish wisdom. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Jacobs is a graduate of Vassar College and holds a Masters of Arts in Jewish Art and Material Culture from the Jewish Theological Seminary in consortium with Columbia University and the Jewish Museum of New York. He posts regularly on his blog (rabbiandrewjacobs.org).