We like to think of this day as a day of celebration for all the citizens of the United States of America. But as Frederick Douglass proclaimed over 150 years ago, for many people – people living in this country – the Fourth of July serves as a painful reminder and a mockery.
When he spoke, the issue was slavery. Millions lived in the chains of chattel slavery. Those chains have fallen, thanks in large part, to Frederick Douglass and other African-Americans who resisted enslavement.
But many still do not enjoy fully the vision of freedom. Racism persists. A number of states greeted the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act by moving ahead with Voter ID laws, some of which have been rejected under the voting rights act. Immigrants face challenges as they seek to make a new life. Supreme Court decisions have made it possible for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters to marry – in certain states. An economic gulf looms between the rich and many people who struggle to find ends, let alone to make them meet. Men, women, and children are trafficked for labor and for sex. Slavery has morphed; it has not disappeared. For many, the promises of freedom and the United States remain unrealized. For all of us, the words of Frederick Douglass ring true.
Frederick Douglass was born in a slave cabin in Maryland. The date and year remain unknown even to Douglass. The condition of enslavement resulted in such a lack of knowledge for many. Douglass endured the violation and horrors of slavery. And he resisted. His first attempt to escape failed. Then he tried again and, in early September 1838, disguised as a sailor, he escaped to freedom – precarious freedom, but freedom none the less.
During a visit to the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, Tricia and I opted to take a tour that focused on slavery, resistance, and abolition efforts in New York. We learned that Douglass made his first stop in New York City. He did not stay because of the city’s support for slavery. In New York, Douglass married Anna Murray. They went to New Bedford, Massachusetts to live.
Douglass became a leader in the abolitionist movement. A talented speaker, he would spend about six months each year travelling and speaking. Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention and became a supporter of women’s rights including the right to vote. This connection led Anna and Frederick to move their family to Rochester, New York, perhaps to be near Susan B. Anthony.
On July 5, 1852, in Rochester, Douglass spoke at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence: the Fourth of July, U.S. Independence Day. Perhaps they anticipated his words and tone. Most likely they did not. Douglass reminded his audience that, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He went on to note:
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 cruelty 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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Douglass did not end there, however. He observed that, despite his experience and the painful realities, “I do not despair of this country.” He closed with a poem of hope written by William Lloyd Garrison that begins:
God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
The poem ends with an affirmation remaining engaged in the struggle for liberty, freedom, and justice – of working to make the promise of the Fourth of July real for all.
Frederick Douglass devoted himself to that struggle.
May I do the same.
See you along the Trail.