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Veterans share their celebration plans for nation's birthday

Brunswick News - 7/3/2020

Jul. 3--USAF retired Chief Master Sgt. Cornell Harvey grew up in Brunswick during an era when the nation's birthday was celebrated separately in black and white communities.

As a youth, Harvey's family would join others from the African-American community at Selden Park, where they would grill, congregate and wait for the fireworks display.

The beach at Jekyll Island, where the best view of the fireworks could be seen, the gathering place for many whites, was off limits to African-Americans because of the ongoing civil rights strife, Harvey said.

"It was a time to get together," he said of the holiday.

There was little discussion about Independence Day or the good fortune everyone had to live in the United States during the gatherings back then, he said.

Harvey's perception of July 4th changed after he enlisted in the Air Force, where he served 29 years. He is currently serving his second term as the city's mayor.

"I didn't know about patriotism until I joined the military," he said. "When I went overseas, it made a big difference because I knew I was representing the United States. It took on a different meaning."

Harvey credits retired Army Col. Thomas Fuller for frequently reminding him and other local veterans of their contribution to their country. Every Memorial Day, Veterans Day and July 4th, Harvey said he would get a phone call from Fuller thanking him for his service.

Fuller is in a nursing home now and sadly lost the ability to make the calls several years ago, Harvey said.

"He called every last veteran that he knew," he said. "He is my hero, my mentor, for keeping that spirit."

Nowadays, Harvey said July 4th is a poignant, patriotic holiday where he reminisces about his military service and his appreciation to live in the greatest nation on earth.

"We celebrate July 4th as another time to reflect on what it means to be an American," he said. "I'm glad to be in the greatest country that is."

Bennie Williams, a 26-year Air Force veteran and commander of American Legion Post 9, said Independence Day has a different meaning for veterans because they have fought to preserve freedom throughout the nation's history.

"The Revolutionary War was our first break from England. The War of 1812 was our final break from England," he said.

The armed services continued to protect the nation's freedom during world wars and other military actions over the years, preserving the ability for everyone to have an Independence Day to celebrate, he said.

For many people, however, the Fourth of July is just another day off work, he said.

"The average person thinks of July 4th as a holiday," Williams said. "For most vets, it's the start of the nation."

Retired Army Col. Barrett King grew up in the 1950s in a family with a long history of military service.

"There weren't that many big fireworks displays near us, although when we'd spend the summer in Washington, D.C. with my mother's parents, my grandfather would take us to the hill at the Georgetown Library, where we could watch the fireworks over the Mall downtown," he said. "When I was about nine, my Washington grandfather bought a parchment replica of the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives. I thought it was the real thing and (he) had me read it aloud and explain to him what it meant."

King said he has never forgotten that moment.

"To this day I look forward to the annual reading on National Public Radio, and will occasionally just re-read it, just for the exercise," he said. "I wish there were more people who would actually read the whole thing. Ancestors on both sides were early colonists and Revolutionary War veterans, which was often discussed among the families no matter what time of year."

During his 38-year Army career, King said he never treated July 4th as a military holiday but as a "celebration of independence."

The concept of independence is a "concept for humanity" that King said was expressed in the Declaration of Independence to eliminate monarchies and the "divine right of kings." The right of independence was entitled to the common people, he said.

"I served to defend your right to disagree with me, to worship or not in your own manner, to take a knee if you needed to make a statement, no matter what song was being played," he said. "I did not serve to replace the king with a flag or anthem. I served to replace a king with a person who has the right to think for herself or himself and to be heard when he or she chooses to speak."

King said he plans to take time during the holiday to look back on the nation's sometimes turbulent history.

"There is much in our past to reflect upon and to remember also that there is much in our past that is not worthy of celebration," King said. "Independence Day is a good time to re-read the Declaration and to consider how much more we need to do to ensure equal rights and opportunities to all people."

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation of ceremonies, fireworks displays, festivals and family gatherings traditionally held to commemorate the nation's birthday. But King said things are different for him this year.

"We've cancelled the visits this year," he said. "So I'll read the Declaration and have a hot dog."


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