This July 4th celebration is going to feel quite different for a large segment of Americans. With the inordinate number of police killings of blacks, the question as to what the Fourth of July means to our culture and our people is appropriate. This issue was addressed by Frederick Douglass in 1852 with his famous speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” before the Rochester, New York Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. His speech, in many ways, pointed out the hypocrisy of a country enjoying a day predicated on freedom, when over four million men, women and children languished in an oppressive system throughout the south. Today, one-hundred and sixty-eight years later, with the killings of our black men and women, murdered at the hands of the various policemen throughout the country we might legitimately ask,” What to the families of these slain brothers and sisters of the race is the Fourth of July?” We can easily expand that to include the entire Black race in this country.
An additional question we might ask, is there any hope in the future that white racism will be eradicated in this country and Black Americans no longer must fight these senseless battles with senseless sick individuals? Is there a place in this country for Black Americans? This issue was first addressed by two wise men as early as 1852, when it appeared that soon slavery would come to an end. The first position was articulated by Dr. Martin DeLaney. He was born a free man in Charlestown, Virginia in 1812, but his family was forced to flee their home because his mother taught all her children to read and write. In 1852 Dr. DeLaney wrote his famous tract, “The Condition, Elevation, Emigration and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, Politically Considered.” It was his position that in this country the black man and woman always functioned from a position of weakness, because of the overwhelming control of the whites, who functioned from a position of power. It was his belief that the black race would never be equal to the whites, because the latter clearly enjoyed their position of strength within the economic, political and social structure of this country. The use of police power over the Blacks was and still is a weapon they readily use to maintain their superior position. Dr. DeLaney concluded that whites were incapable of changing, and the best that blacks could do was to leave this country and seek another land for themselves. However, he was never able to identify just where that could happen.
The other position was articulated by Frederick Douglass, the man known as the leading proponent and spokesperson for freedom for the slaves. Douglass stood in strong opposition to the idea of emigration. His main objection was that it falsely assumed that “there was no hope for blacks in America.” Douglass also was convinced that moral suasion was possible. Unlike DeLaney, he was convinced of the strength of the moral argument. Echoing the human rights argument found in the Declaration of Independence, Douglass explained that it was self-evident that Blacks had human rights and therefore were entitled to all the rights and privileges, which are a part of human nature. Douglass’s view that all persons have human rights, gave him reason to reject DeLaney’s view that moral appeals from one group to another are pointless and delusional. He also rejected DeLaney’s belief that prejudice was permanent. Douglass also rejected the notion that blacks could not be politically assimilated into the country. Douglass declared: “I shall advocate for the “Negro” his most full and complete adoption into the great national family of America. I shall demand for him the most perfect civil and political equality, and that he shall enjoy all the rights, privileges and immunities enjoyed by any other members of the body politic.”
Based on Dr. DeLaney’s assessment of the condition of the black man in America, the answer to our question is that there is no hope for the black race in this country. However, according to Frederick Douglass’s belief in the ability of white America to change, there still is hope. As we acknowledge the Fourth of July this year, the question remains, for what?