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Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July Message

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Frederick Douglass StatueAt the height of demonstrations following George Floyd’s death by asphyxiation when Minneapolis policemen knelt on him during an arrest, the quarterback for the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League chose that moment to criticize as unpatriotic anyone who would refuse to stand during the Star Spangled Banner (he apologized the next day). It was a reference to Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who famously “took a knee” during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality against people of color and other forms of systemic racism.

Black people have long questioned how the nation’s founders could sign a Declaration of Independence that stated “all men are created equal,” then subsequently ratify a United States Constitution that accepted slavery and declared each slave to be three-fifths of a person. In 1852, less than a decade before the onset of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass was asked by an anti-slavery group to deliver a Fourth of July message at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, which once stood behind Reynolds Arcade. Douglass had recently ceased publication of his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star that began in the basement of the “African Church” on Favor Street in the Third Ward. The audience got exactly what they wanted when Douglass took an oratorical knee against the holiday being celebrated. Here are a few excerpts.

“Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? 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…? 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 [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 today?

“Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them…. I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America! I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will use the severest language I can command….

“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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation 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. 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.”

This article was first published in the Corn Hill Gazette July 2020.