‘I Must Mourn’: Frederick Douglass on the Meaning of July 4th to the Slave

These words, spoken in 1852, are relevant to modern U.S. society mired in the legacies of slavery and racist brutality.

In These Times Staff July 4, 2017

On July 5, 1852, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass gave his clas­sic speech at Rochester, New York on the mean­ing of the 4th of July to the Amer­i­can slave.

Fel­low-cit­i­zens, par­don me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? 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? And am I, there­fore, called upon to bring our hum­ble offer­ing to the nation­al altar, and to con­fess the ben­e­fits and express devout grat­i­tude for the bless­ings result­ing from your inde­pen­dence 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 life 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?

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.

At a time like this, scorch­ing irony, not con­vinc­ing argu­ment, is need­ed. O! had I the abil­i­ty, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour forth a stream, 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, 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 the crimes against God and man must be pro­claimed and denounced.

Read the full speech here.

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