Freedom, peace, and hope: Lessons from January 6

U.S. Senate candidate Glenn Hurst contrasts President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech of January 6, 1941 with Donald Trump's attack on democracy 80 years later.

It was no ordinary January day in Washington, DC. There was an expectation in the air not just on the streets of the city, but across the country. In fact, there was anticipation around the world. The U.S. president was going to speak. It was a time where authoritarianism was finding footholds in Europe, Asia, and even the Americas. Blatant racism went unchecked and was even amplified by governments and world leaders.

It was against this backdrop on January 6, 1941, that the United States took center stage in the battle for freedom. It was not just a demonstration of what could be in the United States, but a demonstration of what every nation on the planet could experience. It set the tone for the century.

Out of that day, a dividing world was given a vision of what could happen. A president, who believed in reaching for an unprecedented third term in office stood before the nation that was at war with itself.

Americans, deeply divided over isolation vs engagement, individual liberties vs the common good, and authoritarianism vs democracy was invited into the President’s vision for the world.

It was January 6, 1941, four scores and 1 year ago. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress. The address would be forever known as the Four Freedoms speech.

Its tenets are the pillars on which the United Nations was erected. It defined the direction that this country would attempt to lead the world for the next century. It laid out the president’s vision for engagement in the war raging in Europe against fascist dictatorships. In the speech, Roosevelt called on the world to dedicate itself to the four freedoms he saw as essential for the survival of our planet.

Freedom of speech and freedom of religious practice were already codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To these he added, freedom from want.

“Translated into world terms,” he defined it, “means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world.”

He went on, “The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.”

He emphasized that these concepts were not just for citizens of the United States. Roosevelt believed that people in every country in the world should be free from want, having the resources necessary for happy productive lives. He believed that all nations should live without fear of war and invasion and advocated the global reduction of arms.

He also spelled out a timeline for achieving these goals saying, “This is no vision of a distant millennium, it is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

He spoke these words of hope as the world teetered on the brink of war, less than 25 years after a global flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl.

The four freedoms became the backbone of international engagement. They were incorporated into the Atlantic Charter that paved the way for the dismantling of the British Empire and the formation of NATO. They were adopted by the United Nations as they appeared in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Famed painter, Normal Rockwell, used them as inspiration in a series of images for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The freedoms even appear on the back of the World War II Victory Medal, the Victory Ribbon.

I am saddened when I reflect on the event of January 6, 2021—an insurrection inspired, encouraged, if not peripherally organized by another president and his administration. Donald Trump's speech that day called on cowardice and self-righteousness to a selfish end, his own authoritarian rule over a free people.

We should not be surprised. Given the opportunity to unite and lead, he has always chosen to divide and destroy. He did not guide his followers to a higher purpose, but rather toward selfish pursuits and to false beliefs that claiming a crown makes one a victor. Of course, he could only order his misguided followers to attack the Capitol. It was the only action that would have made sense to them after his years of brainwashing.

I am saddened because I believe that the people of the United States are better than what Trump sees. He sees Americans as innately selfish and cowardly. He perpetuates the false notion that we can reach equality when we drag each other down rather than when we raise each other up. He sows doubt instead of faith; fear instead of courage.   

I am also saddened that our leaders stood by and let him corrupt the vision, of not just a better country, but a better world. Senator Chuck Grassley moved as fast as he could to relinquish his legacy to the would-be-dictator. He was ushered from the Senate Chamber on January 6 to protect his life from the horde encouraged by Trump, then equivocated on what happened that day.

Most of us watched those events unfold before our very eyes. We know what happened. I watched with my daughter who attended 7th grade in our back office, due to the botched handling of the most recent pandemic. She would peek out during breaks and ask what was happening. I held back from saying, “We’re about to see if democracy survives in the United States.” But that is exactly what I was feeling. Even harder to bear was that I was sure it was not about to be defended by Grassley, Senator Joni Ernst, or U.S. Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Ashley Hinson, or Randy Feenstra.

Roosevelt had not suggested that we look to the government for the outcomes he foresaw. He said, “This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.”

President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, was nothing short of revolutionary in its vision for democracy, freedom, and peace around the globe. Donald Trump’s speech before his mob 80 years later was nothing short of an attempt by an authoritarian to strip us of the safety, the voice, and the laws of our land for personal gain.

It is time to remove those who would defy our unity and turn us against one another. We must rid ourselves of those who do not believe in equity of opportunity, privilege, and property. It is time for us to claim the destiny we have been driving toward since Roosevelt spoke of those sacred freedoms. On this January 6, I choose to celebrate the Four Freedoms and I call on all of us to defy the four horsemen that were loosed on that most recent day. Together. Indivisible. We can lead.

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