Racial Justice: A Foundation for FDR’s Four Freedoms in 2021

November 3, 2021

Each year, the Roosevelt Institute presents the Four Freedoms Awards to people who, through their actions and achievements, have shown a commitment to the principles that Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed in a historic 1941 speech as essential to democracy: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This year’s Four Freedoms Awards, which took place over a series of virtual ceremonies during the month of October, centered on the theme of racial justice, a principle that has taken its rightful place at the forefront of our politics.

The choice of theme for this year’s Four Freedoms Awards is rooted in our belief that racial justice is one of the basic requisites for a free and fulfilling life for all. In their respective fields, the work of this year’s recipients—award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones; US Senator Raphael Warnock; worker rights activists Sixta Leon Barrita, Rubiela Correa, Sonia Pérez Garcia, and Maria Isabel Sierra; immigrant rights activist Deepak Bharghava; and civil rights activist Fred T. Korematsu—highlights the necessity of racial justice in securing FDR’s Four Freedoms for all.

Our 2021 awardees belong to a cohort of changemakers who are powering the 21st century racial justice movement. In this era of racial reckoning, droves of scholars, intellectuals, activists, and organizers are coming together to expose and dismantle the structural racism that threatens our democracy, economy, and society. 

At the Roosevelt Institute, we’ve found that there is a worldview emerging from this movement—a worldview that demands transformative systemic change, which we can only achieve by dismantling the root causes of racial disparities: white supremacy and structural racism. Three core values animate this emergent worldview: freedom and liberation from systemic oppression; repair and redress of a legacy of harms perpetuated against communities of color; and equity in material outcomes for individuals and communities. This year’s Four Freedoms awardees deeply embody the values of this emerging worldview in their work.

Freedom of Speech and Expression Award: Nikole Hannah-Jones

Award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has for years pushed us to grapple with the effects our country’s racial history has on our present. Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project is a key piece of literary activism, representing what we call “the new popular history”: an understanding that the legacy of slavery and racial subjugation is baked into America’s democracy. Claims for repair and redress cannot move forward without this understanding, to which Hannah-Jones and her co-authors have helped bring mainstream recognition in academia, media, and pop culture. 

Freedom of Worship Award: Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock

Reverend Warnock walks in the tradition of southern religious leaders who calibrate our country’s moral compass on racial justice and civil rights: first in his activism as pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church—a position once held by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—and now as the first Black Democratic Senator from a former Confederate state. Senator Warnock is part of the new wave of activists influencing Congress from the inside, pushing for legislation on voting rights, economic security, and clean energy, among other progressive causes. He brings his race-forward vision to the legislative process to facilitate change rooted in grassroots calls for justice. 

Freedom from Want Award: Deepak Bhargava

Immigrant rights and economic justice advocate Deepak Bhargava’s remarkable career includes a 16-year tenure as executive director of the organization Community Change. There, he mentored many grassroots activists who are now leading key fights across progressive movements, including the immigrant justice movement. For years, Bhargava has worked alongside immigrant justice organizers calling out the US’s continued devaluing of immigrant lives while simultaneously exploiting immigrant labor. His work highlights the power of organizing and affirms the necessity of immigrant justice in a fair democracy and economy. 

Freedom from Fear Award: Worker Rights Activists from the #FundExcludedWorkers Campaign

Activists and organizers are the beating heart of the racial justice movement. They are most often the originators of the policies that are taken up by thinkers, scholars, and legislators. This year, we honored Sixta Leon Barrita, Rubiela Correa, Sonia Pérez Garcia, and Maria Isabel Sierra: four New York women who tirelessly campaigned for the state to provide financial relief to undocumented workers excluded from federal stimulus and expanded unemployment benefits. The yearlong campaign culminated in a 23-day hunger strike. On Day 11, New York Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes joined the hunger strike; on Day 22, the New York State Assembly agreed to fund the $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund. The #FundExcludedWorkers campaign was rooted in the principle that equitable distributional outcomes are in an entire community’s best interest, and the state legislature’s approval of the Fund indicates that these values are taking root among those who hold political power. 

Freedom Medal Award: Fred T. Korematsu

Fred T. Korematsu was posthumously awarded the Freedom Medal for his decades of civil rights activism, which started with his Supreme Court challenge of FDR’s decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans during  World War II. In presenting this award to his daughter Dr. Karen Korematsu, the Roosevelt Institute publicly acknowledges the immense harm caused by President Roosevelt’s incarceration policy. This choice is emblematic of a major theme in today’s racial justice movement: Acknowledgment of past racial harm is a vital step we must take before we can realize a truly  multiracial democracy. 

The work of our 2021 Four Freedoms Awardees reflects the emerging worldview that racial justice can no longer be a political afterthought. It must be a pillar of our collective commitment to the Four Freedoms and our fight for an equitable society. Through the synergistic interaction of scholars, thinkers, activists, and organizers, we’re seeing a new paradigm for justice and democracy come into focus—one that holds freedom and liberation, repair and redress, and material equity for people of color at its core.