Friday, July 7, 2017

Frederick Douglass on the 4th July


In 1852, 10 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass then living in Rochester, New York, was asked by The Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society to address them on the 5th of July. In his speech he praised the Americans who 76 years earlier had declared their independence from England and had fought the Revolutionary War to make that independence a reality. They earned the gratitude of future generations of Americans for asserting that "all men are created equal" and making that principle the basis of their new government.
Douglass, was born a slave. While traveling in England in 1846, his British supporters bought his freedom from his owner in Maryland. Now free, self educated, he spent much of his life traveling through the United States, as well as England and Ireland, to speak in the cause of Abolitionism.
In his 4th of July speech, he reminds his audience that universal human equality did not extend to the slaves. They continued to be grievously oppressed. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which allowed Southern slave owners who kidnap runaway slaves anywhere in the United States, had only deepened the suffering of African-Americans.
In his speech Douglass does not mince words: "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… For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival."
In recent years, many cities and towns have held public meetings to read this speech by Frederick Douglass. One such meeting was held where I live. It was a hot, sunny day, the sky blue with hardly a cloud, where a long line of volunteers, African-Americans, Whites, people of other origins lined up to each read one paragraph of this heart rending speech.
The audience was small but the readers conveyed their intense sorrow at the continuing injustices suffered by people of color in the United States.
Then the meeting was over. The organizer of the event, a local Black business man, ended the event with the words "God bless America."
God bless America, the nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than those of any other nation? The final invocation of God's mercy seemed at odds with the uncompromising condemnation of America's racial practices we had just read in Frederick Douglass’ speech..
To be sure, even Douglass himself, as he comes to the end of his condemnation of slavery, ends on a hopeful note. He is confident that slavery will come to an end. Most comments on the Douglass speech draw attention to this final expression of confidence that America will finally live up to its own principles and extend equal rights to everyone, black or white.
And is that confidence not justified? We just had a black president. Slavery has come to an end. So has Jim Crow. Black Americans vote and run for office and sometimes get elected.
But wait. Slavery still exists. Our government holds more than 2 million persons in prison. Many must work in prison industries where workers get paid somewhere between $.23 to two dollars an hour. Prison workers have no benefits. They are not allowed to organize. They will be punished if they refuse to work for a pittance. Their condition is not unlike that of their slave ancestors.
The number of Black prison inmates is quite disproportionate to the number of black Americans in the population as a whole. One in three Black men are in prison or live under the supervision of parole officers. They come from black communities where the unemployment rate is close to 50%, where schools fail to teach elementary reading and arithmetic skills to children, and their parents, the working poor, have no time to supervise their children because they are too busy trying to earn a meager living.
The Black Lives Matter movement arose in response to unarmed black men and women being killed by police officers. To date very few of these police officers have had to face court and those that did, were most often acquitted. In the United States in 2017 all men and women are still not created equal.
    We should not invoke divine blessings for America. We should ask for blessings for the small Black children who braved angry mobs of white, racist adults to claim their right to an equal education--a right they still have not won. We should ask blessings for the generations of African-Americans who patiently demanded equality at great danger to themselves.
    We should see our present turmoils as troubles we brought on ourselves for what Douglass called our “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy.”