On Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did what great leaders do — he inspired our nation with a vision. And that vision would guide us out of the Great Depression, through a devastating world war, and set us on the path to greater freedom, equality and democracy than our country had ever known before. It was a vision that reminded us what America is all about and what it is possible for a people who are united around these values to actually achieve.
Roosevelt’s powerful vision was that of the Four Freedoms: 1) Freedom of speech and expression, 2) Freedom of worship, 3) Freedom from want, and 4) Freedom from fear. When America was attacked at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, these freedoms became the rallying cry of our nation. They reminded us that we were fighting not only against fascism and the Axis powers that were trying to dominate the world; we were fighting for a way of life that defined us as a people — the democratic way of life and everything that stood for.
The Four Freedoms were immortalized in songs, plays, speeches, essays, books, and perhaps most memorably in Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings first published in the Saturday Evening Post. They pulled us together and inspired policies and programs to provide “jobs for those who can work … security for those who need it … equality of opportunity for youth and others … coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance … opportunities for adequate medical care … the ending of special privileges for the few … and the preservation of civil liberties for all.” (From Harvey Kaye’s “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great”.)
We’ve come a long way in our fight for the four freedoms, but like all moral beacons, they only work when we keep them fresh in our minds and imaginations. I worry about freedom of speech and expression when money is speech and corporations are persons. I worry about freedom of worship when fundamentalism and intolerance makes strangers, and sometimes even enemies, of our neighbors. I worry about freedom from want when I see families living in poverty and the homeless and mentally ill wandering lost on our city streets. I worry about freedom from fear when I see people who cannot afford to retire even after a lifetime of working and families that are being torn apart by inhumane and illogical immigration policies.
All this is to say that we can do better. We have done better. And when it seems too overwhelming to act alone, we join together with others. Abraham Lincoln said that “the legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well, for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.” Through our individual efforts, voluntary community organizations and good government, we can renew our commitment to making the four freedoms a reality for all Americans. It was a fight worth fighting in 1941, and it remains a fight worth fighting today.
Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville Pilchuck High School. He lives in Marysville.