July 4th For What?

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?

Juneteenth

On June 19, 1865 Union Army General Gordon Granger, landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas and announced that, according to the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, all  slaves in states at war with the Union were free. However, for political and military reasons, the proclamation failed to include slaves being held in territory not at war with the United States. The Proclamation read as follows: “All enslaved person in the Confederate States of America in rebellion and not in Union hands were to be freed.” This excluded the states of Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri as well as those counties of Virginia that remained in the Union, and eventually became the state of West Virginia. So, one can argue that the Proclamation did not free any of the slaves in this country since the laws of the United States were not recognized by those states, that had seceded from the Union to include Texas.

Because Texas was geographically isolated from most the country and especially where the rebellion was taken place, the Emancipation did not reach the Lone Star State until after the Civil War was over. It was on April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate Army to General Ulysses S. Grant, at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. That happened two months before General Granger read the Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, and therefore it was not enforced in the state until after the Civil War ended. Granger arrived with two-thousand Union soldiers for the purpose of occupying Texas on behalf of the federal government.

Standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and looking down at a large gathering of Blacks curious to learn more about their freedom, Granger read the following statement:

The people of ‘Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality and personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wagers. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

The last two sentences of Granger’s speech are informative as to what was coming with that freedom. There is no indication that the freed slaves would receive any kind of help from the government financially, and that the acres of land owned by slaveholders would be equally shared with the slaves. In other words, they were on their own and what was best for them was to remain on the plantations as assumed free men and women.

However, freedom without opportunity was not freedom at all. Black Americans began to celebrate June 19 naming it Juneteenth. There were picnics, public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and songs. As the years passed, these celebrations became more expansive. Celebrations included rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties and Miss Juneteenth contests. But these celebrations were simply a guise to what was happening to them all over the country and in Texas. The opportunity to share in the freedoms that white America enjoyed were soon denied Blacks after the very short period of Reconstruction. By the year 1876, racism took over and Jim Crow laws ruled the day. For the most part, Blacks were relegated to sharecroppers, that was, in reality, a new version of slavery. They were the captives of an economic system that demanded they work for mere pittance in order to survive. Lynching became the mode of punishment for anyone complaining about their status in the system.

Despite the terrible oppression the people of color were forced to live under, they still managed to survive and each year they continued to celebrate Juneteenth. Instead of a celebration of freedom it became and still is a celebration of hope. Black Americans still struggle for equal opportunity. On this Juneteenth we must, as a people, make that celebration not of freedom but of the strength, greatness and endurance of our ancestors, who walked off those plantations determined not to allow anything to stand in their way of survival.