Independence Day 1852 and 2017

Before the night time fireworks on July 4, I spent some of this year's Independence Day at the Frederick Douglass House Historic Site in Washington, DC. This beautiful location known as Cedar Hill is where Frederick Douglass lived from 1870 to his death in 1895. 

A diverse crowd gathered there to see a reenactment of parts of one of Frederick Douglass' most famous speeches "What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July" delivered on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, NY. The truth of Douglass' words from 165 years ago still speak to us today.

He recognized and gave thanks for the vision and bravery of the founding fathers of this nation including the following words, "The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men...They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory."

Yet as a fugitive slave at that time, Frederick Douglass also lifted up the suffering of the millions of men, women, and children who were excluded from the freedom being celebrated, "Fellow citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy I hear the mournful wail of millions!..To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs and to chime in with the popular theme would be treason most scandalous and shocking and would make me a reproach before God and the world."

As we celebrate Independence Day 2017, we are still living with the tension between gratitude for our nation with its principles of freedom and justice for all and the reality that even today millions of our fellow citizens suffer from a lack of equal freedom and justice. The ongoing impacts of structural racism, political gridlock, and widening economic inequality challenge the foundations upon which our nation is built. Frederick Douglass is a great example of how patriotism includes honest self-criticism. We grow stronger as individuals and as a nation when we confess our collective sins and commit to working for greater levels of freedom and justice for all. 

Even while struggling against the entrenched evil of slavery, Frederick Douglass did not give up on his nation. Near the end of that long speech he said, "Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the sate of the nation. I do not despair of this country...I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope." May we share that hope even as we share Douglass' passion for and commitment to freedom and justice for all.

The video below is from the National Archives and features a reenactment of parts of the same speech by the same actor who performed at the Frederick Douglass House yesterday. There is an informative introduction by a Douglass scholar from minutes 14 to 21. The reenactment runs from minutes 21 to 38, and a panel discussion follows. I hope you will take time to watch some or all of this glimpse of our history that still speaks to us today.