Today, Americans celebrate an independence that was once only known to few. Front porches and storefront windows are adorned in red, white and blue, charbroiled smoke rises and settles, and exploding fireworks illuminate night skies. But to the children detained behind chainlink fences at the border or those in juvenile detention centers across the nation, independence day has a very different meaning. On this holiday, we revisit a powerful speech by Frederick Douglass, statesman and moral compass for our younger nation.
Fourth of July to a Slave
Seventy-five years into the nation’s independence slavery abolitionist, Frederick Douglass delivered the speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro." Douglass questioned, “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”
Here’s an excerpt of his speech:
Mr. President, Friends and Fellow Citizens:
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced...Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
The timeless words of Frederick Douglass need echo 163 years since their delivery. A pervasive system of mass incarceration - fueled by unequal applications of law and punishment - perpetuates in the United States. This nation currently incarcerates the largest percentage of people in the world, the majority of them people of color. The “rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence…” does not yet extend equally.
So today, we honor the Frederick Douglass’ fierce words calling on our nation to be the best we can be, and to continue to work toward independence and freedom for all people.
Bonus: Watch to Actor Danny Glover read Frederick Douglass' speech on October 5, 2005 in Los Angeles, California.