ON OUR BIRTHDAY, WHAT’S PATRIOTIC?

Her son was dead. He died serving our country.

At this point, you’re thinking “Iraq.” But this young man never wore a helmet. He never carried a gun. His name was Andrew Goodman. A white college student. Forty-one years ago, he went from New York City to Mississippi after hearing the Ku Klux Klan firebombed a church. He tried to help.

He was murdered.

And yet, here is what Carolyn Goodman told me a few weeks ago when I asked if she regretted her son’s devotion to civil rights:

“When he saw what was happening down there, he said, ‘What is this? We’re supposed to be living in a democracy where everyone can be together.’

“He couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘It’s true, Andy, things like this happen in this country, too.’ And he said, ‘Look, I want to go down there.’

“Well, we couldn’t talk about it at home and then say, ‘Let others do it.’ ” (Our family) said if you believe in something and you feel it’s right, do it.”

Goodman went to Mississippi. He was shot to death – with two other civil rights workers – by a mob of white men on a rural road. They buried the bodies in an earthen dam. Mississippi Burning. Four decades later, the murder was still being tried in court.

But Goodman’s sacrifice was clear.

And it was patriotism.

Helping our country

On this Fourth of July weekend, it is worth asking ourselves what exactly is a patriotic act. Many define it solely as fighting a war. But that is too simplistic. In fact, such thinking is dividing this nation. People who support the war in Iraq paint themselves as “patriotic”- even if they’re not the ones fighting it – and label others as subversive, or anti-American.

It is smarter, and healthier, to see patriotism in more places than a foxhole. One dictionary defines it as “love, support and defense of one’s country.” One encyclopedia calls it as “any selfless act that directly benefits the nation.”

Under those definitions, wouldn’t teaching for low wages in the inner city be a patriotic act? Isn’t the education of our least fortunate children a deed that “directly benefits the nation”?

How about keeping a factory open in the United States, even though profits may be more lucrative overseas? Isn’t employing your countrymen, at the expense of more riches, “love and support” of your nation?

How about volunteerism – at hospitals, soup kitchens or house-building projects? Doesn’t that better the country? Or pro bono work by lawyers? Or volunteer firefighting? Or driving the elderly to polling places on Election Day?

Or reacting when a church is firebombed?

Honoring our freedoms

The point is, there are many ways to love, defend and honor your country. Just sticking a flag on your porch doesn’t make you patriotic. And not everyone who joins the military gets an automatic “patriot” card.

We need to stop slicing this country in half, and saying those who support this act or this politician are “good” Americans, and the rest are not. Sometimes “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” I didn’t make that up. Thomas Jefferson did.

Andrew Goodman dissented from “acceptable” behavior in Mississippi. And as a result, Carolyn Goodman hasn’t seen or kissed her son in 41 years. When I heard her speak so proudly of his going down there, I wondered where that spirit of 1964 went. I remember those days, when we saw something wrong and felt compelled to do more than cluck our tongues.

Monday the nation turns 229 years old. And one thing hasn’t changed in all that time. Whether it’s war, racism, poverty or scooping soup, patriotism begins not when you boast that your country is better than others, but when you do something to make it so.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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