Sankofa Studies

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

July 3, 2019

“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.

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.”

– Frederick Douglass

The fourth of July always brings me to Frederick Douglass’ powerful 1852 speech. But this year, I decided to find out the circumstances surrounding it. I had some questions. What was this event? Who hosted it? And why did he give the speech on the fifth of July, instead of the fourth?

Douglass gave this address at a gathering of about 600 abolitionists in Rochester, NY, in 1852.  The event was hosted by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society and the cost of admission was 12 cents. It was called “Celebration of the National Anniversary.” After the speech, the organization voted to endorse it – unanimously. After the address, there was a “universal burst of applause” and request was made that “the Address be published in pamphlet form.” Seven hundred copies were sold on the spot!  A week later, the paper advertised the printed speech, which was being sold for ten cents per copy or six dollars per hundred.

Douglass gave the speech on July 5, refusing to acknowledge the 4th, until all enslaved people were emancipated.

This speech was probably Douglass’ most famous and poignant and still rings true today.

You can read the speech in its entirety here:

And, there’s some great info on the speech here:

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