In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
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 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. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.
On the 4th of July, millions of patriots will wave the flag and declare that they love USA. But which USA? Sometimes it seems we love a country that never existed, and despise the country we actually have. Do we really mean “God bless America”? Or just God bless myself?
The reality is we do a poor job of loving most of America. We love the declaration of independence, but continue to live as though much of it is a lie. We do not believe we are all “created equal,” but instead that some of us are just plain lazy, stupid, ill-fit, and unworthy. We value ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ but deny it to the 49 million Americans living below the poverty line.
We rally around the Constitution but ignore its very first sentence, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility.” Have we forgotten this founding mission, even as we make false idols of our founders?
We wear t-shirts with the Statue of Liberty, but bare our teeth at the immigrants she was erected to welcome. We love her flame held high, but spit at the plaque at her base: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But given our history, you cannot be a patriot of this country and a bigot toward our immigrants at the same time.
We declare “support our troops!” But if you “support our troops” that means you must support our young, our poor, our people of color — the populations that are fighting our wars. Yet we claim we support our troops while maintaining the systems of injustice that oppress the soldiers fighting on our behalf.
If you “support our troops,” it means you keep their streets at home just as safe as they have kept the streets abroad. It means you give them access to the homes and jobs that they have kept secure. It means you provide the healthcare that keeps their families healthy. It means if they are legal to fight, they are legal to attend school, and that you admit them into your colleges.
We wage war against those that killed some 3,000 on September 11th, but turn a blind eye to the 245,000 poverty-related deaths that occur every year. Is our reaction different because of the identity of the victims, or that of the aggressors?
You say you are afraid of those that want to destroy our country. But so am I. I love America. So much so that I will not stand for the bigots, the oppressors, and the fear mongers who try to destroy it. We need to understand that our ‘American values’ are meaningless if they apply only to the privileged. We need to make clear everything that is anti-American about hate.
We need to reframe what it means to love America and who gets to be the patriots. It is patriotic to care for our neighbors. It is patriotic to educate our children, feed our hungry, and clothe our naked. We need to reclaim patriotism for all Americans.