On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered his legendary speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” in Rochester, New York, for the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society.
In it, Douglass posed a question: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.”
The powerful speech is a vital and historic piece of American writing, and all the more worth revisiting on the Fourth of July — perhaps in particular this Fourth of July, just a few months after Trump spoke about Douglass in a speech kicking off Black History Month.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” the President said back in February, leading commentators to observe that he might not know the influential 19th-century writer-speaker-reformer, who was born a slave and died in 1895, was not still alive.
“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced,” Douglass concluded his fiery speech, which is just as resonant in today’s fraught political climate as it was 165 years ago.
In 2004, James Earl Jones lent his distinctive voice to Douglass’ words, delivering a powerful performance of the speech as part of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States. In recognition of today’s holiday, Democracy Now has reposted the video to revisit on this July Fourth.
Check out the video above for Jones’ reading of the speech, which is an essential piece of history for all who celebrate this holiday — and the perfect introduction for those who may not be aware of who Frederick Douglass is.