Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Fredrick Douglass and the Fourth of July

In the year 1852, Fredrick Douglass gave a famous speech in my home town of Rochester, New York. This speech, now called the Independence Day Speech, is one of my favorites. The world has changed immensely since he gave that speech, but much of what Mr. Douglass says still applies today.

He starts off with an incredible opening, challenging his audience:

Fellow citizens, pardon me, 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?

Mr. Douglass was a powerful advocate for American slaves of African descent, because he himself was an escaped slave. The abolitionist movement reaped great benefits from having an eloquent writer, speaker, and debater like Douglass as a leader in their movement. Contrast that, in modern days, to people like Maher Arar - whose ability to speak about his year-long U.S. Government-sponsored torture and imprisonment in Syria is a heavy reminder of the injustices we must fight against in today's America.

Perhaps Mr. Douglass would be considered a buzz kill by today's standards:

Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.

He was not congratulating his audience, his country, for all the progress they've made; rather, he was reminding them of all the suffering they still had left to stop. This is much different from the feel-good messages and quick-fix solutions that many modern advocacy groups broadcast to their members donors.

Note that Mr. Douglass used language that would make Cindy Sheehan blush:

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.

Sadly, that statement is still true. What would Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh say to Mr. Douglass? Would he last even five minutes on Bill O'Reilly's show? Today's political discourse is in the hands of the oppressors, and the American people have bought it. A man like Fredrick Douglass would not be able to work with today's presidents to set wartime policy; today, that's the job of corporate think-tanks, not social justice types.

I recommend that you read the speech when you get a chance. And imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of the great leaders and liberators of our ancestors. To live in a time when change was easier to believe in.

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