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Guest Commentary

A great day for America

7/2/2014

Editor’s note: Last Friday, 64 men and women were sworn in as citizens at Jordan House in West Des Moines. Michael Gartner was asked to give some remarks. Here they are.

Hello. I am honored to be here with Judge Pratt to welcome you as citizens of the United States. Congratulations.

For many of you, it has been a long journey to this historic house on this historic day. You are not the first to have made the journey.

This house, which is almost 170 years old, was a haven for escaping slaves before the Civil War, the awful and tragic war that was fought to keep this nation together, to preserve for all Americans the rights and freedoms that you now enjoy — and, I hope, embrace — as new Americans.

Slaves would work their way north, often hidden in buggies or carriages driven by white men who were as brave and freedom-loving as the blacks they were smuggling to liberty. The trips were long and arduous, and nights were spent in attics and cellars of houses of men and women who believed in freedom, who were willing to risk their own lives to save the lives of the escaping slaves. This house was built by such a man.

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So you stand on historic ground today.

 But your new freedoms, etched in our constitution, at times still must be fought for.

This week, sadly, is the 50th anniversary of the murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. The three were among many young people from the North who had gone south to help blacks and other poor people register to vote. They were shot on the night of June 21, 1964, in Mississippi by racists who believed that liberty was reserved for white people. That night 50 years ago is a blot upon American history — but another landmark toward this nation’s march for freedom.

But Wednesday, too, is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That act, another landmark in the continuing fight for freedom and dignity for all Americans, was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964. It outlawed discrimination in America based on race or sex or religion or place of origin. It guaranteed to all the right to vote, and it went a long way toward ending racial segregation in America’s schools.

I tell you this today because I celebrate with you the freedoms you now enjoy as Americans. But I tell you, too, so you understand that these freedoms are here because Americans who came before you have fought — for nearly 240 years — to preserve them. It is a continuing battle — a battle in our courtrooms and our schoolrooms and our law-making rooms and our living rooms — and the day may come when you are asked to join that fight to preserve what you achieved today. Do not hesitate.

You now are citizens of a state whose motto is “Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Maintain.”

I hope you prize those liberties fought for by generations of the past — like the man who built this house, like the boys who were murdered in Mississippi — and I hope you will work to maintain them for generations of the future.

That is what America is about.

I hope you will celebrate, especially, next Friday, July 4, the 238th anniversary of the independence of the United States of America.

Again, congratulations, and welcome as citizens to this great state in this great country. And while this is indeed a great day for you, as you become citizens it is an even greater day for America. CV

Michael Gartner is a lifelong journalist. He was editor and president of The Des Moines Register and Tribune and president of NBC News. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He is the principal owner of the Iowa Cubs and an occasional contributor to Cityview.      

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