“The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”

Posted July 4th, 2014 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , , ,

Frederick DouglassThis post was originally published on July 4, 2013 and is reposted today in commemoration of Independence Day, in all its meanings.

It is always worth making time, on the Fourth of July, to remember those people and movements whose courage and sacrifice advanced and improved upon the ideals on which the United States was founded. This is true even for those which may have seemed radical, subversive, or even unpatriotic at the time.

In that light, we highly recommend the Fourth of July oration delivered by abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. on July 5, 1852, entitled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”1

The following brief excepts from Douglass’ speech illustrate not only his burning hatred for slavery and his withering scorn for those who would not extend the nation’s liberty to all its children, but also his praise for all that is good in the American experiment, and his optimism for the future:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. … The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. —The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

For black men there are neither law, justice, humanity, not religion.

Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.

While Douglass’ immediate subject was the institution of slavery, his words address all manner of sin, and greed, and unearned privilege, and are well worth reading in their entirety.

For those who would rather hear this speech delivered by a supremely talented public figure, here is my favorite rendition, by actor James Earl Jones:

  1. Our thanks to Mass Humanities, among others, for laboring diligently to make this speech, and its spirit, an integral part of our Independence Day celebrations each year. []
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