Commentary: If We Can Keep It


Commentary: If We Can Keep It

By John Krull

One July 4, a group of white men in South Carolina decided to mark the holiday in a peculiar and tragic fashion.

They were part of the Red Shirts, a white supremacist group appalled that Black Americans had some political power in South Carolina, the state where the first shots in the Civil War were fired and the first blood was drawn.

On Independence Day, 1876—America’s centennial—two white planters traveled to Hamburg, South Carolina. Hamburg was a town run and primarily populated by Black Americans, many of whom once had been slaves. The planters provoked a confrontation by claiming that members of the Hamburg Company, a state militia unit, had blocked their path.

The Red Shirts went to court. Their lawyer was a former Confederate general who, without any authority to do so, demanded that the Hamburg Company disband and surrender to him personally.

More Red Shirts—more than 100 white supremacists, all armed—descended on the town. The Hamburg Company took refuge in their armory. The Red Shirts surrounded the armory and opened fire.

The Hamburg Company returned fire. A white man was killed.

The Red Shirts made plans to bring in a cannon. The members of the Hamburg Company chose to slip away in the night.

Enraged, the white supremacists started gathering Black citizens of Hamburg, some of them militia members, some of them not.

The white supremacists formed a circle around their captives and debated what to do. While the Black citizens listened, they decided to kill some just to send a message to others about who really should be running things.

That’s what they did.

The white supremacists shot four Black men dead, then, for good measure, went on to kill a Black state legislator.

Still others were wounded and at least one Black man died in panicked firing that came after the slaughter.

That was Independence Day, 1876—100 years after we Americans established ourselves as a nation by declaring:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

We are marking another Independence Day now.

Most of us likely will see the holiday as a moment of celebration, one filled with cookouts, hot dogs and fireworks. We will wave the flag and celebrate all that is good about America.

And there is much that is good about our country.

Not the least of those good things is our declared dedication to principles—liberty and equality among them—that are aspirational in nature. We say that it is our devotion to these principles that defines us as a nation.

But, because we are human, because we are fallible, we often fall short of doing so.

As we did on the centennial of this nation’s birth in Hamburg, South Carolina.

That is why our national holiday always should be something other—something more—than an exercise in jingoistic self-congratulations.

It also should be a time of reconsecration—of dedicating ourselves once again to the ideals upon which this nation was founded and is supposed always to aspire to achieve.

The founders of this nation were not perfect human beings, and they knew they were not. They knew that establishing a nation in which human beings would govern themselves would not be easy and that the ideals to which they proclaimed devotion always would be threatened, always would be imperiled.

That is why, when someone asked him following the Constitutional Convention what sort of government the delegates had formed, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

This Independence Day weekend, we Americans again find ourselves in a time when our beliefs once again often are tested, often are threatened, often are imperiled.

Thus it always has been.

Thus it always will be.

That’s because the American Revolution never really ends. We must strive constantly to achieve ideals that call for perfection and, because we are human beings, we are not perfect.

But strive we must and strive we shall.

Because we live in a republic.

If we can keep it.

FOOTNOTE: John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

The City-County Observer posted this article without bias or editing.

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