400 Year Blog #27 – What, to Black People, is the 4th of July?

Posted in: Leader's Blog
In 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech entitled, “What, to the American slave, is your fourth of July?” It’s worth reading as we prepare for another Independence Day celebration. Douglass said that July 4th revealed to those still enslaved, “the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Douglass continued, “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 which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
These are strong words from someone who – despite years of enslavement – proved his patriotism as advisor to Lincoln, as ambassador to Haiti, and as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia. But Douglass’s words illuminated a love-hate relationship felt by many people of color whose ancestors “settled the land and ‘manured it’ with blood,” as historian Lerone Bennett Jr. puts it. “The land was theirs, the country was theirs,” for better or worse.
Immediately after the Civil War, July 4th was an important holiday for Black Americans in the South, as Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts document. On July 4th, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, one speaker declared that finally Black Americans “bask in the sunshine of liberty.”
In 1876 African American militia companies named for Black heroes marched through Charleston streets, including the Attucks Light Infantry, honoring the Black martyr of the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks, and the Douglass Light Infantry, named for Frederick Douglass.
That same year, Jim Crow racism began driving Black citizens out of our national celebration. In Hamburg, South Carolina, a black militia parade sparked racist riots that killed seven African Americans. In the south July 4th became a “whites-only” holiday. Today, Black legal activist Michael Coard writes that African Americans shouldn’t celebrate the day our Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 white men, 27 of whom owned, shipped, or invested enslaved humans. This year, at the very least, let’s work to understand a more comprehensive history of July 4th and recommit ourselves to anti-racism work.
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Lesson #121 – Douglass’s speech reminds us that the British were the first to promise freedom to enslaved people who fought with them in the Revolutionary War.
Lesson #122 – For many people of color, especially descendants of enslaved people, their relationship with the United States is a love-hate relationship, or perhaps even more complex.
Lesson #123 – Whites, in the post-Civil War South were horrified and frightened by the martial celebration of Independence Day by those they once claimed to own.
Lesson #124 – Whites “reclaimed” Fourth of July celebrations as part of the growth of Jim Crow culture.
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