If you’re against freedom, please stop reading now.
Still with me? Good, then you shouldn’t object to this statement:
Of course freedom should ring from Stone Mountain.
Too much of the debate over a plan to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Stone Mountain Park has concerned legalities, hypocrisies and indignities. I invite you instead to think about it as a simple question: Do we or don’t we value freedom together, however we might celebrate it separately?
Seen that way, memorializing one of Georgia’s most famous sons with a Liberty Bell replica atop its most famous geologic feature is ingenious. It pays homage to King through his broadest appeal: that America should make good on its promise of liberty to all Americans.
It is disappointing that this plan met with objections not only from those who don’t want the Confederacy associated with King but those who don’t want King associated with the Confederacy. It is also tiresome and predictable.
If there is anything truly dangerous about the times in which we find ourselves, it is our tendency to define freedom down. There will always be tension between competing interests — who controls the space between the end of my nose and the beginning of yours. Increasingly, though, the default assumption is that one person’s liberty can only grow, or even hold steady, at the expense of another’s.
Under such an assumption, an offensive statement is not a chance to celebrate one’s right to speak out against it but an excuse to curtail the offender’s own right to speak. Religious liberty and the rights of LGBT persons are assumed to be in conflict because neither side trusts the other to know when or where to stop. You can probably think of other examples.
Maybe the simple monument envisioned for Stone Mountain runs into trouble because it breaks from that default assumption. Its design, location and inspiration instead bring a kind of physical harmony to three episodes central to a broad understanding of American freedom: the revolution, the Civil War and the civil rights movement.
That broader understanding is this: We do not have to agree with the pursuits or beliefs of others, but we must recognize and protect their freedom to act or think as they wish. Absent that recognition and protection, in fact, none of us is truly free.
Seen so broadly, it should come as no surprise that “let freedom ring” can be both a stirring refrain from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and a joyful chorus from a country song featured as theme music for Sean Hannity’s radio program. Whatever our differences, it’s a sentiment we keep in common.
So, let the Sons of Confederate Veterans honor their forebears as men who fought for “the preservation of liberty and freedom” as they conceived of it.
Let the Southern Christian Leadership Conference honor its founders as men and women who marched to extend liberty and freedom to those who lacked it.
And let a bell atop Stone Mountain remind us that, while freedom is sometimes unevenly enjoyed and poorly understood, the yearning for freedom is universal.
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