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‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’: Why Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech still resonates 

“It’s an important speech,” said Augsburg University professor and historian William Green. “I think people should read it …. It provides a different view of what that moment in history meant to hundreds of thousands of Americans.”

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking during a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on reparations for slavery on Capitol Hill on June 19.

On June 19, or Juneteenth, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates testified before the House Judiciary Committee on reparations, reminding Congress that, “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could’ve extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind.”

In his follow-up piece, “When will a white man say what Ta-Nehisi Coates said?,” writer Peter Birkenhead asks, “How can it be that, in 2019, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was forced to give testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee that sounded like it could have been given in front of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in 1866? How is it that, more than a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, a black man had to instruct members of the United States Congress on the rudiments of slavery and its legacies?”

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Indeed, if Coates’ testimony rings familiar, it’s because it belongs to a long line of ignored and/or unwritten African-American history. In fact, in 1852, Frederick Douglass — America’s most famous slave-turned-statesman — gave a monologue similar to Coates’, saying essentially the same thing about slavery and freedom. Yet his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” remains largely an underground work, known primarily by historians and academics.

Frederick Douglass
Creative Commons
Frederick Douglass

“It’s an important speech,” said Augsburg University professor and historian William Green. “I think people should read it only because it’s an important thing to read. It provides a different view of what that moment in history meant to hundreds of thousands of Americans; that black people are forgotten on the Fourth of July in America prior to the Civil War, and the wholesale celebration of it is an indication of the dismissal of a race, and the experiences of an entire race.”

Jason Sole, a professor at Hamline University and co-founder of the Humanize My Hoodie movement, urged attendees of last month’s Humanize My Hoodie art exhibit in Brooklyn Center to read Douglass’ speech, drawing parallels to Ava Duvernay’s crucial Netflix series “When They See Us” and other galvanizing moments in African-American history.

“With him giving the speech back then, I’m constantly reminded that we feel like we’ve progressed, we feel like things have changed, but you can go through any city in America and look who’s at the bottom,” said Sole, who teaches criminal justice at Hamline.

“We still have to deal with people celebrating the 4th of July and shooting off fireworks as if we’ve progressed, but when you look at the statistics of who’s in prison and who can’t get loans and who’s more abused by police, we haven’t progressed as much as we like to proclaim.

“So July 4th is one of those days of a reminder, where you see the red, white and blue flag paraded everywhere, but it’s like Malcolm X said: ‘I won’t be a flag-waver or a saluter of the flag until my conditions change in this country.’

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“It’s like, yeah, you can barbecue and act like it’s all good and we’re all free and independent, but we know that’s not the reality. We’re saying the same thing as Frederick Douglass, modern-day. We’re doing similar work. We can’t do it to the magnitude that he did, but at the same time we want to honor him as an ancestor and acknowledge the sacrifice he made to challenge the United States government. He used that platform to put himself on the chopping block in a lot of respects.”

On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered his unprecedentedly powerful speech to the women of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society in Rochester, New York, concluding, “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the 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 denunciations 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 on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

“Go where you may, search where 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, America reigns without a rival.”

Professor William Green
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Professor William Green on Douglass' monologue: "It provides a different view of what that moment in history meant to hundreds of thousands of Americans; that black people are forgotten on the Fourth of July in America prior to the Civil War, and the wholesale celebration of it is an indication of the dismissal of a race, and the experiences of an entire race."

Douglass’ biographer, William McFeely, called the speech, “perhaps the greatest antislavery oration ever given,” yet it has been largely forgotten by white mainstream America.

“That’s the game,” said Sole, former president of the Minneapolis NAACP and the  author of “From Prison to PhD: A Memoir of Hope, Resilience, and Second Chances.” “You’re not supposed to know about it, that’s why I have to give acknowledgement to what he did, because it’s been so buried in history and people want to get rid of the truth so badly. It’s like J Cole said: ‘Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin/One thing about the men that’s controlling the pen that write history/They always seem to white-out their sins.’

“I’m blessed to know historians like Mahmoud (El-Kati) and people who coached me when I was younger as an activist, when I was 24-25, coming out of prison to help me better understand everything. That’s when I found this speech, in 2004. That’s when I was first introduced to it. I gave a speech the next year, centered on [‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July’?] and Malcolm X’s ‘The Ballot or the Bullet.’  You’re not supposed to have access to things like this, because it shows that we haven’t pushed the envelope in the way that we celebrate.”

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It also has something to do with the fact that, upon Douglass’ lone visit to Minnesota in 1873, 21 years after delivering his speech, he was denied a room at two St. Paul hotels because he was black — as detailed in Green’s essential book “The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity in Minnesota, 1860-1876.” 

“There’s a tendency oftentimes for people to, when they hear a harsh criticism, they get defensive,” said Green, of the relatively obscure status of Douglass’ 4th of July speech. “Those few who were supportive of abolitionism, there was a sense that ‘It’s not as bleak as you make it seem.’ Douglass was often accused of being too dark, too negative, so that’s why I find at the end of the speech where he expresses hope, it’s almost like a concession to that voice.

“People were very capable, as they are now, of casting a blind eye to the obvious failures of a generation or a series of generations, and to be reminded of it is something that doesn’t go down well. And of course when it becomes an historical moment, then all you have to do is not talk about it and let it die out and it disappears.

“It’s similar to the Duluth lynchings [of 1920]. There’s recognition now of the three black men who were lynched in Duluth, but for decades Duluthians wanted to ignore that it had happened, because it cast a shame, a stain, on the good name of their city. Similarly, even though we lived with the institution of slavery, I think there’s a great ambivalence that a lot of people felt that they didn’t want to deal with.”

Douglass printed his speech in his newspaper, and published 700 copies of it in pamphlet form. In 2015, deemed it “The best Fourth of July speech in American History.” 

Sobering to read Douglass’ evergreen words this July, when exposés and discussion of white racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, and white privilege are met with extreme reactions in the form of a rise in hate crimes,  mainstream racist groups like the Proud Boys, and racist rhetoric coming from the White House.

“For our generation, it’s important to read because it becomes a morality check,” said Green, who recommends to his fellow Minnesotans Christopher P. Lehman’s forthcoming book “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders and the North Star State.”  “What values and truths do I hold? What is America really supposed to be about, and are we there? And indeed, that’s part of Douglass’ speech. He talks about the need to continue to strive, and I think that it tells people who are inclined to see it as a holiday — we set off firecrackers and eat hot dogs and don’t think about anything — that this is a time to reassess. Let’s take an inventory of where we are as a nation. Are we fulfilling the promise of the Framers of the Constitution, some of whom had slaves? Are we fulfilling that promise? Are we moving forward?

Professor Jason Sole
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Professor Jason Sole: "When you look at the statistics of who’s in prison and who can’t get loans and who’s more abused by police, we haven’t progressed as much as we like to proclaim."

“Douglass was just calling attention to and reminding people that we have very little to be proud of. This is what he’s saying at the time. [The reaction] was like when Michelle Obama said she was proud of her country for the first time [in 2008].  There was a sense that she was a mad black woman and how dare she utter something that characterizes the fact that racism persists after 300 years, and that slavery was an institution that the country had to go to war over to end, and that racism and discrimination and the denial of opportunity still exists, and that for her to be upset about that was a judgment of her character. … That’s the kind of duplicity that I think drove Frederick Douglass nuts, because he had to have faced that same kind of reaction from both friends and enemies in the white community.”

“We’re still in that same place,” said Sole, who, like Green, regularly introduces his students to Douglass’ 4th of July speech. “When it’s timely, around July 4, I usually say something about it. I think I said something about it last year, and the year before, and the year Philando [Castile] was killed, that was two days after July 4th, and I had to keep reminding the public, ‘We’re in the same place as when Frederick Douglass gave that speech.’ If we had Alton Sterling killed July 5th, and Philando followed by it, two black men killed two days after what was supposed to be a glorious celebration of us all coming together? We’re not there. And these two police killings prove it.

“I always throw it out there on July 4th, to the people I’m around. Like, ‘Hey, don’t celebrate.’ Because a lot of people in the black community and Latinx community celebrate it, because it’s always saying, ‘It’s a national holiday and we should support it.’ But it’s like a slap in the face, when you think about what Frederick Douglass said. He said, ‘What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer: A day that reveals to him more than all other days in the year the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.’

“We’re still in slavery, we just don’t like using that because we say, ‘Oh we had a black president, we’ve got a black mayor of St. Paul, there’s a black person over here.’ But it’s the same system that’s built on white supremacy. You might tinker with it here and there, but it’s the same. If we really want to get to equity, we need to be reading this speech every day and comparing from then to now, just constantly. When I tell people ‘slavery never ended,’ they get shocked by that statement. But it’s like, you might see me with a car now, or a job or a career, but if my family members can’t reach that level of success, am I truly free?”