Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at a Spirit of America Festival in Decatur, Alabama

July 04, 1984

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. And thank all those wonderful young people that we've seen here in this parade. I don't know whether any of my remarks or what I'm going to say on this day can be as eloquent as seeing what really the future is all about in this great, free land of ours, and it is embodied in those young people that came by here.

What a wonderful festival this is. And one of the most impressive things about it is that you began this annual Fourth of July celebration 18 years ago when some people said that patriotism was out of style back in that period. Well, I guess here in Decatur it never was out of style.

When other people were burning our flag, you were waving it. And I don't know if a President has ever thanked you for that, but please accept my gratitude and admiration.

It's good to be here with Senator Denton, Congressmen Edwards and Flippo, and I was hoping and thought for a time, until some things intervened in the schedule-foul-ups here—that I was going to be able to greet my friend and your Governor, George Wallace.

We were Governors together when I was Governor of California. As a matter of fact, I was looking forward to telling a little thing about him, and now I'll just have to tell it to you and somebody relate to him, that once when I was attending a meeting as Governor of California in one of the hotels in Los Angeles, somebody told me as we were breaking up that your Governor, George Wallace, was in another part of the hotel. And I thought it would only be courtesy and friendly of me to drop over and pay my respects to him. And he was there, representing the best interests of Alabama, as he always does. And I walked into a meeting where he was telling a group of California business executives the advantages of leaving California and moving to Alabama. [Laughter]

But I want to congratulate Admiral Whitmire on receiving the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award. I knew Audie Murphy. He was a good man. He's buried, as you know, in Arlington Cemetery, and there's a simple stone at his grave that says: "Audie Murphy—Texas." But it could say Audie Murphy—American—because in one of our roughest hours his courage and plain decency cast a light on the entire Republic.

In World War II, a unit of ours that was routed by a superior enemy force—and Audie Murphy climbed into a World War II disabled tank, up on the turret, and turned the machine gun of that turret on the enemy, and all alone was trying to hold off the hundreds of advancing men of the enemy. At the same time, walkie-talkie radio—he tried to call for artillery support. And when the artillery commander, wanting to know what his safe range was, asked how close the enemy was to him, Audie said, "Well, if you'll wait just a minute, I'll let you talk to them." [Laughter] Well, he was actually asking them to direct the artillery fire at his own position, because that offered the best opportunity of stopping the enemy.

But I'm so happy to be here tonight. I don't get to the South often enough to suit me. Come to think of it, I don't get to California as much as I'd like either. [Laughter] But I always feel a special affinity for this part of the country and the people in it.

And even now in these modern times when people who aren't from the South talk about it, they tend to dwell on the physical beauty of the Old South and wax poetic about moonlight on the magnolias. Well, of course the South is lovely, and that is true; but there are those—and I'm one-who feel a special affection for its people. I respect the values that took root here and the pride that's part of the southern character. I'm drawn to your good sense and decent traditions, your fidelity to God, and your faithfulness to your region. And I know that you love our country and are very protective toward it.

I mean no slight to the other parts of the country—to my heritage, which was up in the heartland there in the Middle West, or now my home in the West. But I have been struck when, now and then, on news for some reason or other—on the TV news-there will be an occasion where the commentator is talking to one of our men in uniform, and I've often been struck by how often the young man in uniform, when he replies, you hear the lilting cadence of Charleston or Memphis or Winston-Salem or Decatur. The South was the home of patriots in 1776, when a southerner drew up our Declaration of Independence. And it's the home of patriots today, 208 years later.

We're here tonight at a great celebration, a birthday party for the Nation. And we come together to honor those who invented this country and who saw to it that it would always be a place of high ideals. And we celebrate those who, in each generation, have protected those ideals and advanced the cause of democracy.

I'm trying to smile, but if I appear as if I'm frowning a little bit, it's those TV lights up there— [laughter] —so I'm not really frowning at all; I'm squinting.

But the cause of democracy, that's a subject of high seriousness when, on a night like this, it's hard to be somber and full of deep thoughts, it's hard not to be happy. We have so much to be thankful for.

When I was in China recently, I was privileged to speak to several hundred students at Fudan University in Shanghai. And I talked to them about our country. I'd had an opportunity to be questioned by a number of them, and I felt that they had a great interest in us and particularly in our young people, their peers here in this land. So, in talking to them, I wanted them to understand who we are as a people, and I told them that in many ways we're a nation that loves to contend with itself. We love to argue. And we're free to argue, and that's as it should be.

But I told them that we always managed to stay united around certain things: our central belief that all men are created equal and our belief that democracy is the fairest and most honorable political system yet devised by man. And they seemed to understand. I sensed a very favorable reaction from them and was very pleased by that. And, of course, what I said was true. We are great arguers. But in spite of all our differences, we're still a united country, and we celebrate that unity today. We celebrate, too, the miracle of 208 years of freedom.

I want to talk to you about something, if I could, that I've been thinking about a great deal lately. You know, when you work in the Oval Office, a lot of problems cross your desk. We're repeatedly reminded that there's a lot to do, so many causes to carry about—or care about, and carry forward in our country and in the world. But I think what's impressed me most and what's given me a very deep feeling over the last 3 1/2 years is how very lucky we are. We are truly blessed to live in this time and this place.

Now, I say that because there are so many people that get more attention than they deserve. They run around and survey the modern landscape and see the problems of mankind, and they say, "Oh, it's such a troubled world." We hear people say that this is a terrible century and that we live in an increasingly totalitarian age, that freedom is dead or an illusion to begin with, and man is just a powerless victim of historical forces and that history is something beyond our control, something we can't affect. Well, the counsel of these sour souls would seem to be that mankind has had it and we might as well just give up. Well, let me tell you, they aren't talking about the American people I know.

This is a wonderful time to be alive. And we're so lucky because as a people, we still have the opportunity to be patriots, and as a nation, we still stand for something.

Look at the challenges of our time. God has granted us the challenge to change our own country and to make it better by moving it closer to the intentions of the men who invented it.

We have the challenge to make America even more free than she is; to ensure greater freedom in the marketplace, where our boldness and our power and our genius can bloom. We must work for greater freedom for you so that you can benefit from your labors and so that your earnings will remain where they belong—in your pockets and purses for your families and in your neighborhoods.

We have the power and the challenge to expand freedom in all areas of life; freedom of inquiry and thought, freedom for the practice of religion, freedom in commerce. Ours is the challenge to advance the interests of the family, the challenge to protect the interests of the smallest unit of government, the hometowns of America, where the expression of the public will is most directly felt.

You know, I've often had a feeling sometimes there in the National Government—I even had it sometimes at the State level-never in my hometown—the feeling that sometimes if we just slipped out, we in government, and closed the doors, turned the key, and disappeared for a while, it'd take you a long time to miss us.

We stand for freedom in the world. We see the gulags and the prisons, those places where man is not free to do work of his choosing and profit from his labor, places where the freedom to worship God has been extinguished and where souls have withered. But we're blessed by God with the right to say of our country: This is where freedom is. This is the land of limitless possibilities.

And you don't have to travel too far in the world to realize that we stand as a beacon, that America is today what it was two centuries ago, a place that dreamers dream of, that it is what Winthrop said standing on the deck of the tiny Arabella off the Massachusetts coast, with a little group of Pilgrims gathered around him, and he said, "We shall be as a shining city for all the world upon the hill."

It isn't so of other places and other systems. Can you think of a time when you heard of a West Berliner jumping over the wall to get into East Berlin? Can you think of a time when someone took a homemade balloon—hot-air balloon and tried to float from free Western Europe into Czechoslovakia? Or when someone took a leaky fishing trawler on a death-defying journey so they could enjoy the freedom of Havana, Cuba? Can you think of a time when any family, thirsting for opportunity, left a democracy to live in a country that was not free?

The truth is that the totalitarian world is a tired place held down by the gravity of its own devising. And America is a rocket pushing upward to the stars. Other countries see our entrepreneurial spirit and seek to emulate it. More and more, the world is reawakening to the fact that freedom is better than tyranny, that democracy is better than the iron fist of dictators, that freedom is the one condition in which man can flourish. And man was meant to flourish, was meant to be free. And that is why we were created. That's why it's been said that democracy is just a political reading of the Bible.

The world has flirted with systems other than democracy, and for a while, some of them were in vogue. There were those who said our problems are intractable, and we need huge government to tell us what to do. For a while, the doctrine of Marx and Lenin seemed something new and revolutionary. And some among us said, "Well, that's an idea. We should look at it." Well, all for a while. Times have changed. Man has moved on, and more and more we can see that the tide of the future is a freedom tide.

Man still thirsts for freedom. And wherever the persecuted fight for freedom, our souls and our spirits are with them. We're with the trade unionist in Krakow, Poland, marching behind a crucifix. We're with the Afghan rebel fighting the tanks with an undying ancestral will. We're with the people of Central America, who struggle each day for liberty.

And in spite of decades of troubles and sometimes self-doubt, look across the world for the persecuted and punished, for those who yearn to be free, for those who fight for the right to worship, to speak freely, to write what they want, to enjoy the freedom God meant us to have. For all those people, America's not just a word; it is a hope, a torch shedding light to all the hopeless of the world.

You know, throughout the world the persecuted hear the word "America," and in that sound they can hear the sunrise, hear the rivers push, hear the cold, swift air at the top of the peak. Yes, you can hear freedom. It was so 208 years ago, and it's so today.

My friends, we're so lucky. We've been granted the right to stand for something. So much of our greatness is behind us, but so much of our greatness is still before us, out there waiting for us to take advantage of it. It is, in truth, a wonderful time to be alive. And those young people that I mentioned first, with those present in our country who have been trying to frighten them into believing that maybe there isn't a future for them, don't any of us who are grown up let them believe that for one moment. They're going to see things we've never seen, they're going to have advantages we've never had.

I thank you. God bless you, and may He continue to bless the Nation that has showered this land with love for more than two centuries. Thank you all. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 6:53 p.m. at Point Mallard Park.

Following his remarks, the President went to the Huntsville Hilton Hotel in Huntsville, AL, where he remained overnight. The following morning, he attended a reception for Reagan-Bush workers at the hotel.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at a Spirit of America Festival in Decatur, Alabama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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