Freedom Isn’t Free – A Continued Fight For Democracy

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Taken at a protest over the police murder of EJ Bradford. Hoover, Alabama. 2020

July 4th, 2024 feels like a tough day for the United States of America. We celebrate freedom as our reproductive rights, right to vote, and freedom of gender expression are under attack. We celebrate escaping a monarchy as our Supreme Court rules that president’s are immune from prosecution while committing “official acts”. We celebrate with fireworks while U.S.-made bombs contribute to the months-long killing spree of innocent people in North Gaza. Even as the country we call home seems to punch down at those it represents, there are still things to celebrate. First and foremost: the people. 

“Freedom isn’t free, freedom isn’t free. You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice for your liberty.” 

These lyrics were part of a musical program when I was in 3rd grade. My school, located in the suburbs of Birmingham, had a joyous event planned to celebrate the United States of America. We rehearsed for weeks before our parents took the day off to come see their children sing about the 50 states, Yankee Doodle Dandy, the star spangled banner, and apple pie. 

Out of all the songs we sang, “Freedom isn’t free” was the one that stayed stuck in my head for years after. Partially because it was a catchy tune, but it was the words to the song that made it stick out from the rest of the pack. Strangely ominous for a group of 3rd graders to sing, but with the intention of making us understand how precious this democracy around us was. People died for what we took for granted every day. 

The lyrics to this song (at least how they were explained to us by our music teacher) were about the soldiers who gave up everything to protect the freedoms that we cherish here in the United States. The words created visions of overseas battles and the long-ago Revolutionary War. However, the older I became the more I saw people fighting for freedoms right in front of me.

One of the first times this happened was when I was in college at Mississippi State University. I was in the student union when a group staged a sit-in to raise awareness and call for justice in the recent murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police. I didn’t know what to do at the time—this was all new to me—but I knew I was witnessing something important. 

2024 like 2020 like 1960. Taken at Selma March in 2020.

It would take a few more years and a presidential candidate directly attacking the well-being of people I loved before I joined the sit-ins and marches. But when I did my whole life changed. I watched 20-year-old nonbinary restaurant workers getting tackled by police, then continue to show up. I met foot soldiers from the 1963 children’s marches in Birmingham, and I saw how they continued to stand on the front lines in the 2020s demanding a more just country for all. I met the 5th little girl from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Sarah Collins Rudolph, and watched as she continued to demand better from this nation—all with a glass eye from a domestic terrorist attack that took the life of her sister.

The more I met these heroes, the more I learned of those who fought for freedom before them. The abolitionists, the ones who escaped slavery then turned around to help others, the ones who refused to participate in systems of oppression. People who understood that the land of the free didn’t apply to all who lived here, and risked their very lives trying to change this shameful truth. I see their strength passed down to foot soldiers like Gloria Washington Lewis Randall in Birmingham. To great modern day writers with Alabama ties such as Angela Davis, Imani Perry, Ashley Jones, and so many more. They have won important moral and legislative battles, and will continue to shape public perception of what is right. Their knowledge and experience is laid out before us to guide us on the path many of us are choosing to take—a path towards freedom and liberty for all. And so the song continues:

“Freedom isn’t free. Freedom isn’t free. You’ve got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice for your liberty.”  

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