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Clack: To be American is to see that US ideals can die – San Antonio Express-News

A year after the insurrection, former President Donald Trump continues to inspire people who believe the presidency was stolen.
When I was a high school sophomore in 1976, during the bicentennial of my country’s birth, I stopped reciting the last six words of the Pledge of Allegiance. One hundred and sixteen years separate Thomas Jefferson’s composition of the Declaration of Independence from Francis Bellamy’s writing of the pledge, but a photograph I saw when I was 15 made them both ring hollow for me.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning picture, taken by Stanley Forman in April 1976 during the Boston busing desegregation crisis, shows a young white man thrusting a flagpole, an American flag attached, at a Black man in a three-piece suit.
Shortly after seeing the picture, I recited the pledge with my classmates until the last six words: “with liberty and justice for all.” I knew enough of my country’s history and the discrepancies between ideals and deeds to have the photograph bring home to me that those words didn’t apply to me.
It was a silent, personal protest I continued into my 20s when I realized that more constructive than refraining from saying “with liberty and justice for all” was to be a better citizen and work to narrow the distance between our nation’s ideals and deeds — the duty of us all.
On ExpressNews.com: Clack: Hope perseveres, like a lost butterfly in winter
No country has ever withheld disappointment and heartbreak from its citizens. And for all my disappointments and heartbreak with my country, the United States of America, I’ve never ceased loving it or believing in its possibilities, even as progress came achingly slow.
Except for the attacks on 9/11, I’ve never felt more American than I did one year ago today when I saw a mob of my fellow citizens, incited by the lie of a stolen election, attack and desecrate the U.S. Capitol, destroy and steal property, look for elected officials of both parties to assault, and try to overturn an election.
But when I saw some of them using American flags to beat police officers, reminding me of the 1976 photo, I had two thoughts. The first: This was was the kind of behavior that kept me from saying “and liberty and justice for all” because it was exactly that behavior that prevented “liberty and justice for all.”
The second: The preservation of this democracy isn’t guaranteed, and it can’t be ceded to people who would cancel the outcome of elections that don’t go their way and think nothing of using violence to get it done.
To be an American is not a talent. It’s not a craft. It’s not a skill discovered early in life that is honed and mastered to the amazement of others.
We didn’t align the stars or our bloodlines so we would be born in the United States of America.
To be an American and enjoy its freedoms is a gift of fortune, and it must never be forgotten that but for the grace of God, Allah, Jehovah or whatever power one believes put us here, life could have been less fortunate.
But for forces we don’t possess the power to change, we could just as easily be the Rohingya dissident targeted by the Myanmar government or the Haitian or Guatemalan family trying to cross the U.S. border.
On ExpressNews.com: Clack: When my grandparents heard the music, they danced
In Albert Camus’ “First Letter to a German Friend,” the Noble laureate wrote of France, “This country is worthy of the difficult and demanding love that is mine. I believe she is worth fighting for since she is worthy of a higher love.”
The United States is worthy of the difficult and demanding love that is ours. I, like many others, I suspect, had taken for granted the democracy that is our responsibility to expand, not restrict. But it must first be preserved.
One year ago, through the smoke and yelling, we caught a glimpse and felt the tremors of what it would be like to lose something we always assumed would endure.
Being an American is to continue to fight for liberty and justice for all, and to protect each other from those seeking to harm us and our democracy.
cary.clack@express-news.net
Cary Clack was born and raised in San Antonio. In 1995 he was hired full-time as a reporter and columnist. He left the paper to join Joaquin Castro’s first congressional campaign, later serving as Rep. Castro’s district director. He rejoined the Express-News as a member of the Editorial Board in 2019. In 2017 he was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

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