One afternoon in Greenville, South Carolina, when I was 9 years old, my father was raking leaves. The man of the house came outside to offer us a drink of water, and when he left I asked, Why does that man speak differently from us?
"He's German," said my father, and he stopped and leaned on his rake. "He's German. I fought in Europe so they could have freedom. I'm proud to be a veteran of that war." His eyes clouded over. "But now he's here, and he can vote, and I cannot. I helped free his people, now I'm raking his leaves."
It is a paradox of the human spirit that even after such brutal oppression and disregard for human rights, we are still so patriotic and love our country so much. It is our land; we cultivated it and helped to build it. But it is not our government. Indeed, fighting for a better government is the patriotic thing to do.
America at its best guarantees opportunity, and so fighting to expand the horizons of oppressed people is an act of patriotism. Yet too often, those who dare expand our nation's democracy and make it true to its principles are victims of naked aggression, aggression led not by street fighters but by the White House, Congress and the courts. The founding writers of the Constitution envisioned a nation in which people of African descent were three-fifths human, in which their own mothers and daughters and sisters had no right to vote, in which Native Americans had no right to live.
Thomas Jefferson expressed the American dilemma when he wrote: For in a warm climate no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just....
Through patriotism we have made America better. We have gained the right to vote. Women and African-Americans have changed the course and character of the nation. And my father's faith in his country has been sustained in the lifetime commitment of his family to make America better. Yet those who have fought for the highest and best principles of our country, the true patriots, have been vilified and crucified. The true patriots invariably disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, and are persecuted in their lifetimes even as their accomplishments are applauded after their deaths.
Today, politicians are proud to pronounce that we have abolished slavery. But in its time, slavery was the political center, and abolitionists were punished for their moral strength. Today, politicians hold up the gains of women. Yet in its time, denial of the vote to women was the political center; the women's suffrage movement sought the moral center, and was punished for its patriotism. Those who fight for civil rights, open housing, environmental laws, peace and international cooperation, and veterans of domestic wars -- the real patriots -- receive no parades.
We must never relinquish our sense of justice for a false sense of national pride. "My country right or wrong" is neither moral nor intelligent. Patriotism is support for the highest ideals of the nation, not for whoever happens to be in the White House.
As citizens we must continue to fight for justice and equality so that we might make a better nation and a better world. We must give credence to our invitation: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," for the character of our nation is rooted in the affirmation of these ideals for all of our people.
For its 125th anniversary issue, The Nation asked writers and activists to explain their interpretation of patriotism. Jesse Jackson contributed these thoughts.