The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Partisans often try to claim July 4 as their own. It usually backfires.

Independence Day has always been a political battlefield.

At a Fourth of July rally in 1964, white spectators who had gathered to hear Lester Maddox and George Wallace speak at a States’ Rights rally used folding chairs to attack a black man. (Horace Cort/AP)

Americans have long used the Fourth of July not merely to barbecue, watch fireworks and celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but also to make new declarations of their own.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, informed the nation that it would double in size with the Louisiana Purchase on July 4, 1803. In later years, the day was marked with grand groundbreakings for projects that would help Americans traverse that sprawling nation, such as the Erie Canal and the country’s first passenger railroad.

The stubbornly independent Republic of Texas announced its annexation by the United States on Independence Day in 1845, exactly when Henry David Thoreau chose to make his retreat to Walden Pond. Seven years later, Frederick Douglass chose the day to deliver an abolitionist oration on the shortcomings of democracy, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

This dependence on Independence Day only became more pronounced in the modern era. From across the political spectrum, countless movements have sought to establish their significance by linking their own partisan causes to the patriotic themes of the holiday. More often than not, though, such actions have backfired.

Independence Day has, from the start, been a touchstone for all Americans, whatever their politics. Its ceremonies and celebrations draw out basic principles, in broad strokes and bright colors, allowing all Americans to see themselves — and their political beliefs — as rooted in the ideas and ideals of the founders.

All partisans see themselves as patriots. As a result, any effort by one side to claim the day as theirs, and theirs alone, invariably sparks an angry reaction from the other.

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In 1964, for instance, the Fourth of July figured prominently in the fight over civil rights.

Pointedly, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act on July 2, the anniversary of the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence. He did so only hours after Congress had passed the bill, rushing the signing ceremony so he could lay claim to the historic date.

In his televised address from the East Room of the White House, President Johnson invoked Independence Day to link the new measure to the nation’s founding principles. “One hundred eighty-eight years ago this week, a small band of valiant men began a struggle for freedom,” he intoned. “Yet those who founded America knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”

Civil rights leaders echoed the patriotic rhetoric. Whitney Young Jr., head of the National Urban League, heralded “the new declaration” in his newspaper column that ran on the Fourth. “Signing of the new civil rights bill by President Johnson,” he began, “may prove to be a ‘shot heard ‘round the world’ as famous as the one fired nearly two centuries ago on the Lexington green.”

But, of course, segregationists heard the shot, too, and responded in kind. In Atlanta, segregationist (and future governor) Lester Maddox refused to comply with the Civil Rights Act, instead opting to shutter his fried chicken restaurant.

On the Fourth, segregationist leaders rushed to the city to make a dramatic stand with Maddox at a massive rally. “It was cruel irony,” Alabama Governor George Wallace thundered to the thousands assembled, that just before Independence Day, “the President of the United States has just signed into law the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted.” True patriots would resist this tyranny, Wallace warned, just as their forefathers had.

The crowd made clear its commitment to the cause. When three black men began booing a speech by former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, the white crowd threw bottles and rocks at them and then followed up with fists, feet and folding chairs. Having bloodied the protesters, the mob turned on the policemen protecting them and a white woman seen as sympathetic to the civil rights cause. “They beat her up,” an eyewitness remarked, “but I wish they’d killed her.”

Both sides claimed to represent the true spirit of Independence Day. Civil rights activists and their allies understood their cause as part of an expanding movement for greater freedom, one that had at long last reached the descendants of slaves. Segregationists saw themselves as the heirs to the colonists, unjustly suffering under the tyranny of a faraway government. Each side seized the day for its own, to the disbelief and dismay of the other.

The “struggle for freedom,” as the president put it, was more contested than it seemed.

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Six years later, the Fourth became a battlefield once again.

In the spring of 1970, revelations that President Richard Nixon had greatly expanded the Vietnam War with the invasion of Cambodia rocked America. Antiwar demonstrations shook the country, most famously with the killing of students by National Guardsmen who had been called out to end protests at Kent State and Jackson State.

Hoping to rally Nixon’s supporters, his allies announced plans for a giant “pro-America rally” on the Mall on the Fourth. “Honor America Day,” promoters announced, would be “the biggest celebration in America’s history.”

Plans called for Reverend Billy Graham to lead a religious service from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the morning, and then for Bob Hope to emcee an all-star program of music and comedy at the Washington Monument that evening. The entire extravaganza, Hope told reporters, would show the world that “Americans can put aside their differences and rally around the flag to show national unity.”

But instead, the celebration once again served to show how divided the country had become.

Organizers self-consciously recruited conservative crowds, sending White House advance teams across the country to bring 350,000 members of Nixon’s Silent Majority to the capital by car, train and bus.

But leftists descended on D.C., too. Thousands of antiwar protesters came to challenge the conservative crowd with chants. Meanwhile, a smaller group of hippies gathered on the mall for a “marijuana smoke-in,” complete with red, white and blue joints. As the day heated up, some stripped naked and waded into the reflecting pool.

The two sides eyed each other warily throughout the day. A hippie with long hair and a drooping mustache dismissed the clean-cut crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial as “the Americans,” unable to imagine that he shared a nation with them. The Silent Majority seemed to agree. “Those filthy hippies in the pool,” a Kraft Foods salesman from Ohio spat, “they should be locked up.”

The park police tried to maintain a “DMZ” between the sprawling Honor America Day crowd and the radicals at the fringe. But that evening a small group started throwing rocks, bottles and cherry bombs, and the cops moved in.

As the U.S. Navy Band began the “Star-Spangled Banner,” police launched tear gas into the thicket of protesters. But they misjudged the wind, and the smoke soon swept over the celebration itself. “To the final strains of the anthem,” a reporter observed wryly, “there was a mass stampede of weeping hippies and Middle Americans away from the fumes.”

In the end, only the magnificent final fireworks brought the crowd together, if briefly, in a shared moment of awe.

As soon as it was over, the two sides went their separate ways.

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On these Independence Days, and others like them, Americans sought to advance divisive issues by tapping into the day’s ceremonies and celebrations of national unity. But efforts to harness the holiday rarely ended well. Instead of bringing the nation together, they only served to illustrate just how divided it had become — or perhaps to remind us how divided it has always been.