Frederick Douglass’s Fiery 1852 Speech, “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro,” Read by James Earl Jones

Every year on this day, Fred­er­ick Douglass’s fiery, uncom­pro­mis­ing 1852 speech, “The Mean­ing of July 4th for the Negro,” gets a new hear­ing, and takes on added res­o­nance in the con­text of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics. It has nev­er ceased to speak direct­ly to those for whom the cel­e­bra­tions can seem like a hol­low mock­ery of free­dom and inde­pen­dence. The Amer­i­can hol­i­day com­mem­o­rates the adop­tion of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence—next to the Con­sti­tu­tion, the U.S.A.’s most cher­ished found­ing doc­u­ment, and a text, for all its rhetor­i­cal ele­gance, which can­not escape the irony that it was writ­ten by a slave­hold­er for an emerg­ing slave nation.

Slav­ery had always been a con­tentious sub­ject among the colonists. And yet the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion was a war waged for the full free­dom and enfran­chise­ment of only a very few white men of prop­er­ty. Not only were black peo­ple exclud­ed from the nation’s free­doms, but so too were con­quered Native Amer­i­can nations, and in great part, poor white men and women who could not vote—though they were not chained in per­pet­u­al servi­tude as human chat­tel, with lit­tle hope of lib­er­ty for them­selves or their descen­dants.

Dou­glass gave the speech in Rochester, NY, sev­en­ty-six years after the first July 4th and at a time when the coun­try was riv­en with irrec­on­cil­able ten­sions between abo­li­tion­ists, free-soil­ers, and the slave­hold­ing South. The Com­pro­mise of 1850 and the Fugi­tive Slave Act—at least, in hindsight—made the impend­ing Civ­il War all but inevitable. The speech reveals the cel­e­bra­tion as a sham for those who were or had been enslaved, and who could not con­sid­er them­selves Amer­i­can cit­i­zens regard­less of their sta­tus (as Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice Roger B. Taney would affirm five years lat­er.)

Just above, you can hear a pow­er­ful read­ing of Douglass’s speech by James Earl Jones, deliv­ered as part of Howard Zinn’s Voic­es of a People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. Read an excerpt of the speech below.

What, to the Amer­i­can slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all oth­er days of the year, the gross injus­tice and cru­el­ty to which he is a 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 that would dis­grace a nation of sav­ages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of prac­tices more shock­ing and bloody than are the peo­ple of these Unit­ed States at this very hour.

Douglass’s speech con­demned the “scorch­ing irony” of Amer­i­can inde­pen­dence even after the Civ­il War, as racist ter­ror­ism and Jim Crow destroyed the promise of Recon­struc­tion. In our present time, writes Pulitzer Prize-win­ning author and pro­fes­sor Isabel Wilk­er­son, amidst the rash of high pro­file police killings and an ensu­ing lack of jus­tice, events “have forced us to con­front our place in a coun­try where we were enslaved for far longer than we have been free. Forced us to face the dispir­it­ing ero­sion that we have wit­nessed in recent years—from the birther assaults on a sit­ting black pres­i­dent to the gut­ting of the Vot­ing Rights Act that we had believed was carved in gran­ite.” We might add to this list the resump­tion of the failed “War on Drugs” and the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s announce­ments that it would do lit­tle to safe­guard civ­il rights nor to inves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute the surge of white suprema­cist vio­lence.

And yet the “self evi­dent” mythol­o­gy of Amer­i­can free­dom and equality—and of Amer­i­can innocence—remains potent and seduc­tive to many peo­ple in the coun­try. As the con­ser­v­a­tive think tank Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute put it a few days ago, “The birth of the Unit­ed States was unique because it was a nation found­ed not on blood or eth­nic­i­ty, but on ideas.” To this ahis­tor­i­cal fic­tion, which man­ages to erase the founders’ own state­ments on race, the col­o­niza­tion of indige­nous lands, and even the bloody Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War in its strange­ly des­per­ate zeal to sweep the past away, Dou­glass would reply: “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 the crimes against God and man must be pro­claimed and denounced.”

Hear oth­er read­ings of the speech by Mor­gan Free­man, here, and by Dan­ny Glover, here.

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Civ­il War & Recon­struc­tion: A Free Course from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Take Free Cours­es on African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry from Yale and Stan­ford: From Eman­ci­pa­tion, to the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, and Beyond

An Anti-Racist Read­ing List: 20 Books Rec­om­mend­ed by Open Cul­ture Read­ers

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

Albert Ein­stein Explains How Slav­ery Has Crip­pled Everyone’s Abil­i­ty (Even Aristotle’s) to Think Clear­ly About Racism

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Bill W. says:

    “You’re welcome.”–said the 350,000 Union troops who died to free the slaves…

  • americantruthbtold says:

    And since the descen­dants of slaves in Amer­i­ca are still treat­ed with racism, hatred, prej­u­dice, employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion, police bru­tal­i­ty and the unre­lent­ing pur­suit to give tick­ets to African Amer­i­cans for pet­ty vio­la­tions so as to humil­i­ate and dehu­man­ize us more than any oth­er race in Amer­i­ca, and oth­er atroc­i­ties that many Cau­casian Amer­i­cans spend their life­time invent­ing, I can con­fi­dent­ly say that their deaths were in vain!

  • Kali says:

    How can a groups of white Euro­pean colonists who stole the ter­ri­to­ries now known as “Amer­i­ca” from the First Nation Peo­ples, and pro­ceed­ed to attempt to exter­mi­nate them, be deserv­ing of any respect what­so­ev­er. It is long past time this colony received its inde­pen­dence. It should be hand­ed back to the First Nation Peo­ples imme­di­ate­ly, and any of the colonists who do not wish to to live under their gov­er­nance should be allowed to return to their home coun­tries.

  • TCM says:

    An essay unwor­thy of Open Cul­ture on this day, great respect for Fred­er­ick Dou­glass notwith­stand­ing.

  • Faloria Jones says:

    Great Out­stand­ing Speech by a Great Out­stand­ing Man!!

  • Charles Price says:

    This is to the scary per­son who had the dis­re­spect­ful nerve to say he don’t care about black slaves … Let me cor­rect and truth­ful­ly edu­cate you. First if you are white and your say­ing this to the pub­lic I speak open­ly for my peo­ple you are a ass and f you. You must be racist how can you take own­er ship for some­thing that ya own peo­ple did­n’t have or invent­ed? Your whole race stole from us for more then 100 years then your racist folks came out mak­ing coun­ter­feit paper is called ssc birth cer­tifi­cate as well as what you call mon­ey in Amer­i­ca. Your kind lied mis­guide our chil­dren is the school sys­tems you cre­at­ed police which was ranned by the mem­bers of the KKK clan and to pro­tect you bums from us beat­ing ya ass Every­time your peo­ple talk crazy call­ing bronze folks black and the n word. This is why ya kind is get­ting away with every­thing. There’s facts to back up what I men­tioned. Police pigs are only to serve and pro­tect there own peo­ple mean­ing white folks and that shit will nev­er change so please watch your dis­cussing mouth about speak­ing false­ly about my fam­i­ly and my peo­ple.

  • Charles Price says:

    Indeed sis­ter

  • brad says:

    To “Some­one Said;

    We know that you and most of your Klan asso­ciates don’t care! I’ve always said this Amer­i­ca is more racist than any­one could ever imag­ine. What are the foun­da­tions of your warped think­ing? The cra­dle of civ­i­liza­tion lies in Africa! When the almighty cre­at­ed “civ­i­liza­tion”, He did­n’t make it replete with igno­rance! There was knowl­edge in abun­dance. He gave us (Black folks) cer­tain gifts. For exam­ple; melanin! “Oops” You may be igno­rant to this! To say that Blacks are not wor­thy of any free­dom is asi­nine! Jack­ass! You are a graft­ed prod­uct of Blacks! we were free before your ances­tors brought us here. With all the resources that are and were there we would have been a prosporous nation inde­pen­dent of out­side “influ­ence”! rape, rob­bing, steal­ing, lying,are all a part of your tric­knowl­edge scheme! So I leave you with this; free your­self and study the “uncon­vo­lut­ed” his­to­ry of Africa. I ask you and oth­ers alike to face the truth. One final ques­tion; Are you a prod­uct of the beasts who made you wit­ness lynch­ings? Sure sounds like it.

  • Joe says:

    First I have to take issue with the essay itself. I’m not sure where you guys learn your his­to­ry but near­ly every­one of you have no con­text for your state­ments and its f’ing sad. Pub­lic edu­ca­tion in America!Second I’m a white man who grand­fa­thers where atro­cious racist. I learned very ear­ly as my Father and Moth­er were very into the Chris­t­ian Church that God sees the con­tent of char­ac­ter. Third, As the last line may have indi­cat­ed I respect my past, it informs my future, and Dou­glas and King are two of the most influ­en­tial men to live in this coun­try, both of which I have great respect and most white peo­ple today respect them, on top of the fact that your ances­tors changed the heart on a whole nation of peo­ple. More sad than that is most of you think that M.L. King was a white mans pup­pet? Stu­pid, igno­rant think­ing. Fourth, To all of my black broth­ers and sis­ter in the U.S., the chi­nese were treat­ed no bet­ter and they were the ones to build the con­ti­nen­tal rail­road. Through­out his­to­ry one race has fought to enslave anoth­er over land, pow­er, gold, tac­ti­cal posi­tion, etc.… but the Amer­i­can civ­il war was the only time a race fought itself to free those very peo­ple. Britain brought the slaves here to sell. They were in con­trol of South Africa. The NYT would have you believe that they were end­ing slav­ery in the British Isles. You bet­ter real­ly take a look at the British Monar­chy through­out his­to­ry before you make an igno­rant state­ment like that.…. His­to­ry guys, read enough maybe we want destroy our­selves whin­ing about things we can’t change, while peo­ple that hate us plot to destroy ALL of us, not just white peo­ple! IF any­one believes any­thing not Islam you are the ene­my! How you don’t see it shocks me.

  • Linda says:

    Thank you for that speech we have to edu­cate our chil­dren to know that not only do they count but they have rich lega­cy steeped in his­to­ry par­ents take time to teach your chil­dren so they will know that they do mat­ter and is expect­ed to add to the pos­i­tive his­to­ry and let us jour­ney on for the night is gone and the sun­light does appear every morn­ing is a new oppor­tin­i­ty to con­tin­ue the jour­ney and to the pages of his­to­ry God bless you God bless Amer­i­ca

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