A Fourth of July Commentary
By Howard Zinn • ZCommunications • November 25, 1999
In this year 2000, I cannot comment more meaningfully on the Fourth of July than Frederick Douglass did when he was invited in 1852 to give an Independence Day address [on July 5, 1852]. He could not help thinking about the irony of the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of equality, life, liberty made by slaveowners, and how slavery was made legitimate in the writing of the Constitution after a victory for “freedom” over England. And his invitation to speak came just two years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, committing the national government to return fugitives to slavery with all the force of the law.
So it is fitting, at a time when police are exonerated in the killing of unarmed Black men, when the electric chair and the gas chamber are used most often against people of color, that we refrain from celebration and instead listen to Douglass’ sobering words:
Fellow citizens: Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? 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?
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 the constant victim. To him your celebration s 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. 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.
Go and search wherever you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, American reigns without a rival….
Published by ZCommunications • July 4, 2000
Danny Glover, James Earl Jones, and Brian Jones read portions of Douglass’s speech for The People Speak performances. They were recorded by Voices of a People’s History. Listen here.