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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: What does it mean to celebrate the Fourth of July?

Dean Simnioni, 62, waves to honking Interstate 90 traffic as his American flag waves in the wind last month on Flag Day, on the Sherman Street overpass. Simnioni comes from a military family and displays the flag every day at home. He has been coming to this spot for more than 10 years.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Isabelle Parekh and Trevor Picanco The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?

Since the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the Fourth of July has remained an enduring symbol of patriotism and pride in America. What it means to express that , however, has grown increasingly complicated as our nation’s history progresses, representing different things for different people.

Though the holiday may now stir ambivalence, especially among younger Americans, it was created to unify.

With the onset of the Revolutionary War, leaders within the revolution sought to bring the 13 colonies together to combat the British. By creating a holiday representative of independence and freedom, communities from different parts of the country could find common ground, as noted by Andreas Madestam and David Yanagizawa-Drott in a 2012 Harvard paper.

As declared by John Adams in 1776, the Fourth of July “ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.”

The modern-day image of the holiday, complete with the lavish community events and pageantry Adams once described, would not come until the late 19th century, following the efforts of Progressive activists advocating for civic engagement.

Spokane’s first recorded examples of Fourth of July festivities occurred in 1875, purely celebratory engagements divorced from Progressive activism.

“In the early days of Spokane Falls, these were likely to take the form of a big family-style picnic, parade, speaker, maybe a baseball game and, that night, a ball at the local hostelry,” according to a Spokesman-Review article from 1976.

By the time that article was published, the holiday’s patriotic traditions were entrenched in American culture.

“It was a day and a night to be savored,” The Spokesman-Review wrote in a 1976 article covering the bicentennial celebration. “All day long, strangers, wherever they met, wished each other ‘Happy Birthday.’ It was a time to rival the Victory days at the ends of wars.”

Bicentennial and its Fourth of July celebrations, however, were not festivities of unbridled pride and nationalism.

Instead, following events like the Vietnam War and Watergate, they occurred under the shadow of the social upheaval and political corruption that had come to define the 1970s. As this era concluded, according to a 2022 study by the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in their government reached an all-time low of 33%.

Behind the enthusiasm of the bicentennial, what it meant to be an American – and to celebrate it – had been called into question.

The conflicts presented in the seventies have persisted, growing more complicated amidst an increasingly polarized political climate.

In a survey conducted by YouGov in 2021, only 56% of the sampled population ages 18-35 agreed that the American flag makes them feel proud. In a similar poll, published in March by the Wall Street Journal and the NORC at the University of Chicago, fewer than 40% of Americans said patriotism was something that they valued at high importance.

“I’ve spent most of my Fourth of Julys working at independence parties overseas, because I’ve worked at embassies,” said Carmela Conroy, the chair of the Spokane County Democrats, “and we carry the flag abroad to celebrate democracy and the importance of people being able to set their own course in government.”

Conroy flies an American flag at her home, which sometimes surprises people she knows.

“I have had people tell me that, when they saw the flag at my house, they worried about my politics – until they saw signs for progressive candidates in my yard.”

The flag, she said, belongs to everyone.

“I’m a little bit sad that it’s become a provocative thing, but on the other hand, I welcome that it sparks conversations and discussions.”

Conroy said the true nature of a patriot during the Fourth of July is to care about one’s country – to care enough to speak up for it and the people within. She pointed to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the Star-Spangled Banner kneeling to protest police brutality against people of color.

“I think that’s a deeply patriotic act, and a brave act,” Conroy said. “It cost him his livelihood to respectfully demonstrate his belief that America is not meeting the standards that we set for ourselves with respect to some of our citizens.”

“I have a lot more respect for someone who peacefully and respectfully protests, than I do for people who paint skulls on flags or fly tattered flags,” Conroy said. “… or fly a Confederate flag instead of an American one.”

Former Spokane NAACP President Kiantha Duncan shared a similar sentiment.

“To me, patriotism really means that you are not just proud of your country, but that you stand in representation of your entire country, not just part of it.”

When asked whether she felt that the U.S. flag represents her, she said, “In some ways it does.”

“There are times when I’ve seen vehicles carrying the flag whilst also displaying other not-so-patriotic signage. So this symbol of what should be patriotic to me, as a Black woman, can cause some fear as well. Because it doesn’t feel like the ‘proud to be an American’ sentiment it should be. It feels very cliquish and distant.”

“But there have been people of color who have also fought for this country, and if I were to erase what the flag means … I would be erasing their history and their contributions to this country. The parts of the flag that mean something to me obviously have their history behind it as well, the history of all the people who fought, who laid down their lives, who love this country.”

Duncan said the flag should feel accessible to all Americans.

“We must continue to hold tightly to (the flag), to not let go when there are people who have radical ideas of what the flag means and who it belongs to. When they are pulling it towards them, we on the other end cannot let go, and must instead hold tightly to it, hold firm to it, and pull it towards the center.”

District 9 Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Wesley Anderson said he has spent much of his life presenting the American flag to military men and women, or in some cases, just their families.

Parallel to what Duncan said about the American flag, Anderson said that “for me, the flag represents everyone who, in the military, died to make this country what it is.”

Anderson, a Vietnam War veteran, said the flag does not represent a set of beliefs, but a unified country.

“The meaning is in the flag,” he said. “The stars are all the states. The red is blood that was shed for this country. The white is pure, and the blue is justice.”

“It is more than just fireworks and barbecues. It’s a day we have to remember. It represents the principles of this nation.”

Duncan’s Fourth of July represents something greater as well.

“I enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the holidays, but it is also a time to be reflective about where our country is right now, and to really think about where we are, how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.”

Regardless of how one celebrates, Fourth of July festivities are connected by the same thread – an acknowledgment of the history that has helped sculpt the United States into the country it is today – good or bad.

“I hope that everybody finds something about this country to love and cherish as it is,” Conroy said, “and something about this country to be motivated to improve and make better for everybody.”

Isabelle Parekh and Trevor Picanco's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.