Now that the last hot dogs have been eaten, the coals of the barbeque are cooled, the fireworks are but a dim memory, and the three day weekend has come to a close, we can take a look at Frederick Douglass and the meaning of July 4th for us.
Inasmuch as Frederick Douglass to some people in Baltimore is the person for whom the High School is named; or the builder of the five houses on Douglass Place at Fells Point; or the Master Ship Caulker; or the Lion of Anacostia; or the most photographed person of the 19th Century.
For us, today, he is the Black Man who spoke truth to power at a time in the United States that would get a Black Man lynched.
Only twelve years after his escape from bondage, he had already become a world celebrity, one of the great orators of his day, a distinguished editor, a tribune of his people. Frederick Douglass became a leader of the abolitionist movement, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writing.
He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Many Northerners also found it hard to believe that such a great orator had been a slave.
The speech he gave about the 4th of July is without a doubt the most reflective and profound explanation of July 4th you will read. An excerpt follows, but nothing can replace reading and sharing the entire speech.
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Frederick Douglass on 5 July 1852
“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? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary!
Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between 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 light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth 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 today? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can today take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!”
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! We wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
To read the full speech by Frederick Douglas, click the link below: