As we celebrate the “most American of holidays” on Tuesday, the Fourth of July, there is no better time to reflect on the true meaning of America’s founding promise: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It was John Jay, one of the founding fathers, who pointed out clearly the great irony and contradiction of a nation fighting for its freedom against an oppressive power while denying African slaves their freedom at the same time. He wrote, “To contend for liberty and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”
Following the proclamation of these ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, we, as a nation, have been evolving in our attempt to put these ideals into practice for all Americans. Shamefully, the fact is slavery in the United States continued for 89 more years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Celebrating the Fourth of July has always been a complicated matter for blacks in America as evidenced by Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and early civil rights activist, who was invited to speak at a July 4th celebration in Rochester, New York in 1852. Known for his oratory, Douglass used this occasion to urge white Americans to see the Fourth of July from the black American perspective. In posing the question: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?,” Douglass instructed his mostly white audience that the 4th of July reminded the American slave that this most American holiday of them all, was the day that highlighted “the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Interestingly, Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) was one of the first national black leaders that raised the issue of race to national prominence. And today, in many communities across New England, his words are read aloud and discussed, some 165 years later. Now, if you have never read the full text of Frederick Douglass’s speech, delivered in July 1852, I sincerely encourage you to do so without further delay. This will change your perspective of the Fourth of July.
Additionally, it is my firm belief that we should be engaging routinely in those activities and conversations that will give us a better understanding about who we are as a nation today and how that narrative ought to be told. The truth has to be told and told in the right way. When it comes to the struggle for equality and justice, we must acknowledge that journey has been long and difficult and the cost has been enormous in our ever-evolving efforts to secure true freedom and justice for all.
As we focus of America’s unfinished business, there is still much to do as we continue freeing ourselves from our shameful past.
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton High School.