Throughout American history there have been those who have taken patriotism and defense of one’s home to be excuses for war, agression, corruption, and imperialism: but just as it would be wrong to pretend that America is spotless and God’s gift to the world, it would also be wrong to ignore the many people who have stood up for genuine patriotism, for honest love of their homes and families, people who never sought to rule the world or hoard massive amounts political or economic power. People who really did sacrifice everything for freedom and defence of their homes and families and neighbors. People who exemplified what is best in America’s political and cultural traditions. Here are brief descriptions of two of them, both Mississippians.
For years my great-grandmother Stanley worked the red-dirt hills of Central Mississippi: the land of others as a sharecropper, and eventually her own land. She loved the land and she loved to work it. Years past the usual age of retirement she was still keeping massive vegetable gardens: one beside the house and another across the road down a dirt track. She would till and plant and hoe and harvest, and then cook and can and store. Not because she had to, not because anyone made her, but because she loved to do it, because she cherished her independence, she cherished the good earth and its fruits. Hers was- and is, even though she can no longer work in her gardens- the true spirit of American independence, an agrarian sense of place and identity, that does not require empire or military might to sustain itself, but only the soil and hard work. She has always been thrifty and self-reliant in the best sense.
Besides keeping vegetable gardens she has always kept flower gardens; her yard won best yard in the county for years (I suspect I get both my love of natural beauty and my tendency to OCD-like neatness from her side of the family….). From the time she was a little girl she loved animals and would nurse strays to health- a manifestation of a gentleness that has gone alongside an incredibly resiliant toughness. I have never heard express racist thoughts- not a small thing for older generation Southerners; instead she has always manifested love and kindness towards everyone, even people who could hardly be thought to deserve it. She was born into a poor family, and has never been wealthy by any measure. Her wealth has been a wealth of independence, care for the land, love of family, love of God, gentleness, toughness, kindness: the sorts of things that make for true patriotism, rooted in place, rooted in virtue.
On January 10th, 1966 Vernon Dahmer’s house was firebombed by the KKK. Mr Dahmer was an African-American farmer, Sunday School teacher, store owner, and sawmill owner in the northern part of Forrest County, Mississippi. He had earned the ire of the Klan by his dogged work at encouraging democratic participation amongst his African-American neighbors, including the use of his store as a polling station, and his paying of poll taxes. Because of his efforts, three carloads of Klansmen arrived at his house one January night and rolled a drum of gasoline onto the porch and set it ablaze. They then retreated back from the house and took up positions to fire on anyone coming out. Upon being awakened, Mr Dahmer sent his family out the back. He stayed at the house, picked up his rifle, and fought back, firing on the Klansmen, who soon fled. While his family survived safe and sound, Mr Dahmer died from burns and smoke inhalation the next day.
Vernon Dahmer gave his life for freedom: not merely in the abstract sense that his fight was one for full democracy and human rights- all terribly important things- but in the very concrete sense that he was fighting for his family, for his home, for his land, for his neighbors. He did not go looking for a fight; he did not act in defense of his own life, but that of his family. Almost as soon as he began working for voting rights he recieved threats on his life, but he was not cowed by them. In his life he exemplified love of a particular place, working the land, supporting his community. No one told him to do any of what he did; he was not drafted or coerced into his fight for freedom. Instead he willingly chose to stand up, in the face of threats of death, for freedom. He lived as a free man, and he died as a free man.