David Lauderdale

Say your blessing for the Fourth of July

We were discussing over ribs and a pimiento cheeseburger what the Fourth of July is all about.

As a child growing up in the South, food was a big part of it.

My mother's clan still gathers at noon every July 4 and blesses a long string of tables filled with barbecue, fried chicken, baked chicken, rice, new potatoes, creamed corn, corn on the cob, butter beans, string beans with bacon, sliced tomatoes, squash casserole, cucumbers and Vidalia onions in sugared vinegar, cole slaw, watermelon, pound cake, pecan pie, loaf bread, and gallons of sweet tea.

They meet in the fellowship hall at Ways Baptist Church, perched on a red clay hill in Stellaville, Ga. But when I was a boy, the long tables were in the yard at the farmhouse where my grandmother and her nine siblings were reared. Air conditioning was provided by fly swatters, church fans and handkerchiefs.

The only fireworks flew low to the ground. That's where my bare feet would get lit up by a cigarette butt flicked aside by one of the uncles. My grandfather rolled his own cigarettes from a red Prince Albert can, but for an occasion like the founding of our nation, one of his brothers-in-law would bring him a carton of Winstons.

Cousins, some with dashing names like Rita Lynn and Vickie Lee, roamed in packs. Cigarette butts were the least of our tender-footed concerns in a yard with a chestnut tree, and fire-ant hills big enough to need permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The men would talk about the price of cotton. It seemed to always be part of an unfair international plot.

The kids were more enamored with the mystery of one of my grandfather's pinkie fingers. It was half missing, except for a piece of well-worn bone jutting out. It was supposedly the result of a childhood dare among brothers playing with an ax. Whatever happened, they all took it to their graves.

We didn't think a lot about what the Fourth of July meant.

We certainly never connected it to all the signs we saw nailed to pine trees on our ride through Georgia.

I'm sure we had to ask our parents about one of most common signs: "Save Our Republic. Impeach Earl Warren."

Other messages on the signs were more obvious: "Jesus Saves"; "John 3:16"; "Repent"; "Trust Jesus"; "Get Right With God"; or "If You Go To HELL, It's Your Fault."

We got more preaching from the roadside than we did from the radio. And, neighbor, that's saying a lot. In California, they had the Crystal Cathedral. In Georgia, we had the Pine Bark Cathedral along the ribbons of blacktop.

I can look back on it and see that those signs tell what the Fourth of July is all about. It's about the freedoms of the First Amendment. They took effect 15 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate again this week. And living up to the amendment's simple ideals has always been a work in progress.

We have the freedom of religion, without interference from the government. That wailing you hear in the wind is the chorus of Huguenots who first populated our neck of the Lowcountry, begging us to never take freedom of religion for granted.

We have the freedom to speak out against a chief justice, like Earl Warren. We have the freedom to petition for his impeachment. We have the freedom to assemble, and associate with groups that support him, or oppose him.

And we have freedom of the press to help explain it all. As aggravating as the press might be, you don't want to try it any other way. The first thing despots do is control the press. If you find the American media annoying, try Cuba.

That's what the Fourth of July is all about.

It means we have the freedom to ask the blessing, and a lot to be thankful for.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

The First Amendment Center