During the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln reminded his audience, "We cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract...
"It is for us the living, rather, to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us ... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The task President Lincoln set before the people gathered on the Gettysburg battlefield is one no generation has yet completed. It is a task that awaits us as surely as it awaited the Founding Fathers, President Lincoln, and every other citizen of this nation. It is a task we dare not shun, because we have presumed to include it in the very foundation of the country. Many claim that America is the greatest country in the world. That is a bold claim, but it is matched by a bold dream of equality for all people, regardless of their differences. Historically, that dream has gone unrealized as we oppressed blacks long after the end of slavery, stole land from the American Indians despite endless treaties, and denied women a voice outside the home. As dreamers, we have made progress, but we still have a long way to go before the dream becomes reality.
- In October last year Matthew Shepard was killed for being gay. Many were horrified at that crime, but others used his death to speed their hate campaign against homosexuals, complete with a Web site that counts off the days "Matthew Shepard has been in hell."
- Last fall, a group of white men chained James Byrd Jr. to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death in Jasper, Texas. Byrd's offense? He was black.
- In April 1993, the entire Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was destroyed after federal agents from the ATF closed in. In the ensuing blaze nearly everyone inside died. The group had had licenses for its firearms, and from the reports of survivors had been about to surrender when the attack occurred.
And while we experience the longest economic boom in history, poverty remains a problem, and not just in major cities. Even in towns in the Princeton area, people live below the poverty line and need assistance just to get by.
Some say the American Dream has failed; others, with a touch of melodramatic cynicism, claim it has come true. The truth is, the dream is waiting for the dreamers to catch up.
On Memorial Day, we remember the fallen. Their sacrifice reminds us of the task still undone: not to die for our country, but to live. This generation, like every generation before it, contains the architects of tomorrow's America. It is for us to make America a land of individual freedom for everyone, a land where parents and children can live without the sting of bigotry, a land where we truly celebrate our differences instead of forcing others to be like us.
The American Dream is a good one, and the dead we will remember on Monday gave everything they had for it. As the beneficiaries of their sacrifice, we can do no less.