Editorial: 247 years later, the fight for liberty and justice carries on

Ask most Americans what the July 4 holiday is about, and they’ll mention things like freedom and liberty. The reality, of course, is that the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have always been a work in progress. When the founders declared that “all men are created equal,” they definitely meant “men,” — not women — and many did not mean “all.” And they knew, even as they laid claim to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they were setting the stage for a conflict that would deprive many of their newly declared Americans of all three.

As for happiness — even the noblest of patriots agonized over the long road to self-determination, prosperity, economic security and national unity that they were setting their feet on. They knew that this grand experiment in self-governance might not succeed, and that some of them could lose their own lives in the war to come. They also knew that every step forward would be met by opposition from within. First, from colonists opposed to severing ties with English rule — then from those who felt themselves threatened when challenged to desist in their own acts of suppression.

Yet our founding fathers were willing to take the chance. These lofty goals were worth dying for. And they were worth fighting for — one grueling step at a time, with the understanding that this new nation may never reach the shining heights of liberty, but that every step upward was worth the great price to be paid.

They were patriots. Not perfect, but ennobled by their willingness to risk everything for the opportunity to keep pushing for perfection.

And their heirs live among us today, who have dedicated their lives to the defense of liberty. Even today, they are speaking up against the same grievances the Founding Fathers enumerated in their grand Declaration, including harsh restrictions on immigration; schemes that deprived colonists of equal, fair representation; and a chokehold that kept judges subject to British will.

Among those modern patriots:

People like Desmond Meade, who saw a generation of mostly Black Floridians stripped of avenues to prosperity and the fundamental right to vote, due to felony convictions that were in many cases decades old. He founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which gathered thousands of signatures and then rallied Floridians to amend the constitution to clear the path to redemption.

People like the teenaged activists — such as Will Larkins of Winter Park, Jack Petocz of Flagler County, Liana Friedman of Weston and so many more — who led heartbroken, defiant protests in their high schools. Many were punished for speaking out against bills designed to suppress LGBTQ students’ rights to safely acknowledge their existence.

People like Stephana Farrell and Jen Cousins, who have worked tirelessly to rally parents in opposition of book bans and other attacks on the freedom to learn. Their group, Florida Freedom to Read Project, has logged hundreds of requests to keep track of books being challenged across Florida.

People like Barbara Petersen, the former leader of the First Amendment Foundation who keeps trying to retire from a career spent passionately defending Floridians’ rights to an open, accountable and transparent government. She’s back as the head of a new organization, the Florida Center for Government Accountability, which works closely with the First Amendment Foundation to resist the never-ending assault on government in the Sunshine.

They are today’s patriots. Passionate, dedicated — but also angry, confrontational, sometimes despairing because they know some of the battles they wage will be lost. But never relenting, never wavering, because they know the only real defeat comes when they lay down their arms.

Liberty is not an end goal. It is a journey, and sometimes it backtracks. Ground once thought safe is lost. But as we celebrate our nation’s birth, we should also acknowledge that each of us carries that spark of patriotism, and there are many ways to carry forward the defense of liberty that our founding fathers embraced 247 years ago.

Today, celebrate with your families, friends and loved ones — and end the day with the echoes of fireworks in your ears and pride in your hearts. But tomorrow, consider this: Your voice is every bit as valuable as those who are speaking up right now. You can defend liberty in your neighborhood, your city, your county, your state through simple actions that demand little in the way of sacrifice: Showing up for local government meetings, speaking up on social media, volunteering in campaigns, writing letters to the editor in defense of the rights that others have sacrificed to secure.

Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. The rebuke of despotism, and the rejection of tyranny. These are the goals that our founding fathers laid out for us, and they are just as worthy today as they ever were.

The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. Contact us at insight@orlandosentinel.com