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Outdoor Public Reading on July 3 at Montpelier City Hall: What the Fourth of July Meant to Escaped Slave Frederick Douglass

by Nat Frothingham
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became perhaps the greatest African-American leader of the 19th century, gave a speech commemorating the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence at the Rochester (NY) Corinthian Hall.
At Montpelier’s Independence Day celebration on Thursday, July 3, parts of that Douglass speech entitled “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?” will be read aloud. That “read-in” of the Douglass speech will begin at 12 noon on the steps of Montpelier’s City Hall.
When Barack Obama was first elected United States President in November 2008, many Americans wanted to believe that the nation had made a decisive turning away from its slave history and racist past.
A turning away from its racist past—perhaps.
But not a decisive turning, some commentators would argue. One of these commentators is Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, herself an African-American and a civil liberties champion. In Alexander’s 2010 book entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she reports that there are more African-American men in prison and jail or on probation and parole today than there were slaves in 1850 before the start of the Civil War.
And African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in the May 21, 2014 issue of The Atlantic opens his argument on “The Case for Reparations” with this statement:
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
Frederick Douglass began his 1852 speech by honoring the founders of the American republic for defiance, vision and bravery.
Speaking both with candor and generosity, Douglass says, “The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. 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.”
But after delivering this grace note, Douglass pursued the body of his speech—a sweeping attack on American hypocrisy.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” he asks.
“I answer,” he replies immediately, “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless.”
And Douglass continues in this vein toward this conclusion: “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.”
The Frederick Douglass public read-ins began in Massachusetts and the discussion guide for the Massachusetts read-ins asks some of these questions about the Douglass speech today:

  • What are the implications of his words today?
  • How did the war advance in the 1850s?
  • Have we moved forward as a country?
  • What is citizenship?
  • Why this speech and why now?
In addition to the Montpelier City Hall read-in of the Frederick Douglass speech on July 3, there will be additional public read-ins across Vermont—on July 1 in Brattleboro and St. Johnsbury and on July 8 in Burlington.