Defending the American Dream

July Fourth is a good reminder of the dream that African Americans -- and all Americans -- can't afford to let slip away.

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There is something very special about the Fourth of July. There are the obvious tributes, fireworks and family picnics, but there is also that intangible sense of Americans' journey through life as free men and women. That journey has defined not just this nation but also our place in the modern world. We call this journey that is uniquely ours the American dream.

The concept evokes different images not only of what it means to be an American on this nation's 235th birthday but also of what success is in America. When you were growing up and you celebrated Independence Day, was it just about the fireworks and the fun you were having right then, or was it also about your hopes for the future?

Now take a minute and remember how it made you feel, what it made you think, when you first heard that phrase: "the American dream." Did it sound like something that was part of you? Was it something you owned? Did it feel like your birthright?

For many Americans, it did. They grew up expecting to achieve it. That expectation was part of their DNA. Chasing the American dream was just part of being born here in the land of the free. Was that true for you? Or was there ever a part of you that felt as if you were on the outside looking in?

From "I Have a Dream" to the American Dream

Until the turn of this century, African Americans spent generations working on a different dream -- the "I Have a Dream" vision -- because the likes of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, among so many others, knew that you couldn't dream the American dream until the Constitution applied to you the same way it did to every other American. Until your life and your liberties were valued equally, that dream would be a fruitless pursuit of happiness.

We all stand in the shadows of those who fought and sacrificed and suffered so that we would be free to pursue that American dream. The legacy handed to each of us demanded that our lives and our freedoms be afforded equal protection under the law. Generations before us understood that we have nothing without that. That's what makes our generation possible.

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But what does the American dream mean to us in these times? As you prepare blankets and potato salad to celebrate another "Happy Fourth of July," are you truly pursuing it? How much do you appreciate that this is the promise of America -- a promise written in the blood of past generations but defined by the endless possibilities of future generations?

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