Douglass spoke as a free Black man in the era of slavery. But his words resonate through the ages. They symbolically represent the slaves, the freed slaves living as virtual non-citizens, later under Jim Crow, and to this day as less than their white co-citizens, discriminated against in finance, housing, and employment, targeted by white supremacists and police. But these words speak as well, to the history of many people of color, to LGBTQI* people, to women, to communists and anarchists, to Muslims, polytheists, and people of all non-Christian faiths, to working people of all kinds. In short, these words can apply, to one degree or another, to most Americans, and they are an entirely accurate indictment of the USA as a whole.
On this 4th of July, as our nation works hard to erase the halting, insufficient progress we have made, as we lock people up for fleeing violence in which our country is complicit to varying degrees, as we lead the world to environmental catastrophe, as we, as a people, ignore the harm being done in our name within our borders and all around the planet, we should not be lighting off fireworks in celebration of war. We should not be reading from lofty, 18th century documents as if they have any relationship to the United States as it exists or has ever existed. We should be heeding the words of Frederick Douglass. To help us do that, here are those words.
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.