10 years before the Civil War, during a time when the United States had more people enslaved than ever, the city of Rochester, N.Y., asked for a speech from Frederick Douglass, a former slave, to accompany its July 4, 1852 festivities. (The speech was actually given on July 5, during the multi-day event.)
If you recall, he was a freed slave who educated himself and became a celebrated writer, orator, and social reformer.
He accepted, but rather than join in the “celebration,” Douglass took it in a very unexpected direction. In this, he lit a virtual fire with his words to the white audience, undoubtedly making some of them very uncomfortable.
Here’s a taste:
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 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 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 on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
The full text of the speech, later named “The Meaning of July Fourth For The Negro,” lives here.
Legally, slavery ended 13 years later during the Civil War with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and then the 13th amendment to the Constitution that ended the institution on our shores — but in reality, it continued in some parts of the country until at least World War II.
Still, for an African American man to be saying such incendiary words at a publicly-attended holiday celebration before slavery was ended? That took some guts.