In 1852, runaway slave and legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech at a 4th of July event to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The irony of inviting a former slave to be a keynote speaker for an Independence Day ceremony seemed to be lost on those planning the event. The cluelessness of the crowd astounds modern-day African-Americans—how could these celebrity gawkers have been so mindless as to invite a man to speak on the topic of American Independence when he himself was born into chattel slavery and was only free because he escaped “illegally”. In 1852, at the time of the speech, millions of African-Americans were enslaved by the country that had the temerity to label itself “The Land of the Free”.
Understandably, Douglass, like most free and enslaved Blacks, viewed this holiday as the epitome of American hypocrisy.
Known for his extraordinary oratory skills, Frederick Douglass had become a bit of a celebrity which was likely a factor in the decision to invite him to speak. What was probably not expected was what Douglass said which has become one of his best known pieces and stands as a reminder that the 4th of July does not hold the same meaning for all Americans.
In the speech, Douglass declares to his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He then asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
To read Frederick Douglass’ full speech click here
It’s been more than 150 years since Frederick Douglass delivered that speech but today—a day that symbolizes freedom for so many Americans, there are millions who have lost their freedom to the massive prison industrial complex. Today, more black men are in prison or under some form of state control than were enslaved in 1850. More Americans are incarcerated today than were in Stalin’s Gulag. This nation that holds freedom up like a banner of pride incarcerates more of its population than any other country in the world—and the shadowy profits of the private prison industrial complex grow at an alarming rate.
Yet, just as I am keenly aware of the many injustices that seem to go unnoticed by the masses, at the same time there is progress and reason to celebrate. The Fourth of July symbolizes this country’s good and bad. Just look at the images here—Frederick Douglass who gave his chilling speech on the 4th of July, Malia Obama—America’s First Daughter—also the descendent of slaves was born on the 4th of July, Ron Kovic a veteran anti-war activist born on the 4th of July, and Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding father’s and signer of the Declaration of Independence but himself a slave owner and father of slaves died on the 4th of July.
So in wishing you all a safe and enjoyable 4th of July, I include a list of events that occurred on the 4th of July— reminders of our past and present, and hope for our future. Enjoy the links and have a happy 4th of July
1826: President John Adams died on the 4th of July in Quincy, Massachusetts
1826: President Thomas Jefferson died on the 4th of July in Monticello, Virginia
1831: President James Monroe was born on the 4th of July in Richmond, Virginia
1872: President Calvin Coolidge was born on the 4th of July in Plymouth, Vermont
1850: President Zachary Taylor took ill on the 4th of July and died on the 9th
1998: President and Mrs. Obama’s daughter Malia was born on the 4th of July in Chicago, Illinois
1852: Federick Douglass delivers impassioned speech on the 4th of July
1946: Ron Kovic born in Ladysmith, Wisconsin on the 4th of July (Tom Cruise later portrayed Ron Kovic in the movie “Born on the 4th of July”)