For decades now, July 4th has always compelled in me to reconsider, and more deeply appreciate, Frederick Douglass’ famous oration of 1852.
Of course, that’s the one, given before an audience heavily but not completely comprised of White abolitionists in Rochester, N.Y. that contains one of the most famous passages of American oratory:
Having declared earlier in the speech that “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future,” he thundered, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? … To him, your celebration is a sham … a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. …”
We’re used to the power of that passage and the entire speech now because we know of Douglass’ extraordinary character and courage, and we know that he lived to die in peace and considerable esteem some 40 years later.
But it’s vitally important that every so often – and especially now – we allow ourselves to be shocked at the audacity of Douglass’ life, and especially this speech. After all, Douglass was speaking at a time when slavery seemed to have a limitless future, and the rights of free Black Americans were becoming more and more circumscribed. Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court would try to put an end to “the Negro Question” by declaring in its infamous Dred Scott decision that no Black American – enslaved or free – had any rights Whites need respect.
That ruling would soon be turned upside down by the Civil War’s outcome. But, despite the promise of the post-war 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and decades of hollow national boasting about American exceptionalism, Black Americans would remain ensnared in a web of vicious cruelty and betrayal until the landmark federal civil rights laws and policies of the 1960s.
Douglass’ audacity refutes the notion, still current in some circles, that Blacks of the antebellum era were too cowed, or ignorant, to have pride in themselves or speak up for themselves. In fact, there’s voluminous evidence that in their relation to the American Ideal many Black Americans of that era – those enslaved; those formerly enslaved, as Douglass was; and those born free – considered themselves as standing on the other side of an equal sign.
That truth of American history should be one more blazing source of inspiration to Black Americans today amid the ironic juxtaposition of celebrating the nation’s most significant national holiday the week after the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings in three cases showed that the lure of White racism remains powerful.
Indeed, the court’s giving aid and comfort to bigotry in striking down the key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and narrowing Blacks’ equal access to educational opportunity; and substantially limiting workers’ ability to protect themselves against on-the-job discrimination underscores a major point about Frederick Douglass’ character.
He always knew where he stood: on the other side of the American equal sign.
So did Black Americans as a whole. That was the source of their determination and patience in devising and executing over seven decades a nonviolent campaign to reverse the devastating effects of the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy decision legalizing racism.
And that has been the source of their determined, 40-year effort to maximize their right to vote – the fundamental mark of citizenship in a democratic society.
So, historically speaking, no one should be all that surprised that the forces of residual racism in America – acting through the court – should seek to limit Blacks’ ability to stand in their rightful place.
Despite the Republican Party’s desperate efforts to block Blacks’ access to the ballot box; and scuttle immigration reform that would enable undocumented Latino immigrants to step on the path to citizenship; and close off women’s reproductive rights; and spin intricate theories that they can win the presidency back via reactionary, “White-solidarity” appeals to White voters, they won’t succeed.
One reason is that, in terms of voter turnout at the polls, Blacks, and Hispanic- and Asian-Americans – all of whom are key Democratic voting blocs – still have considerable room to grow.
Another can be seen in the multiracial cast of the “Moral Mondays” progressive movement in the state of North Carolina, protesting the GOP-dominated legislature’s efforts to turn the state into a conservative fortress.
If nothing else, that grassroots movement underscores a powerful lesson of these first years of the 21st century: There are plenty of other kinds of Americans standing with Blacks on the other side of the equal sign.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.