What Is July 4 to African-Americans?

What Is July 4 to African-Americans?

By Carl M. Cannon - July 4, 2013

On July 4, 1854, William Lloyd Garrison celebrated Independence Day at a rally in Framingham, Mass., by publicly burning a copy of the U.S. Constitution, a document he characterized as “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell.”

Enraged by Southerners who invoked the Constitution to justify human bondage, Garrison and other abolitionists had turned against the Framers and America’s foundational documents. Initially, this was true of Frederick Douglass, the freed slave who became the conscience of the anti-slavery movement, and its most eloquent orator.

Eventually, Douglass tempered his views after extended conversations with fellow abolitionists, including Ohio Rep. Joshua Giddings, “the Lion of Ashtabula,” and his ally in the House, John Quincy Adams. The scion of one of the Revolution’s most prominent patriots, Adams certainly didn’t blame the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence for the South’s intransigence.

On July 5, 1852, Douglass awed an audience of abolitionists who’d come to Rochester, N.Y., to hear him address the meaning of America’s great national holiday. Although usually called “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” its proper title was “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”

That is a question worth pondering even in 2013, as the Supreme Court sorts out ancient grievances about voting rights, and especially while an African-American family resides in the White House. This is the theme explored in a thin but heartfelt new book, “Somebody in the White House Looks Like Me.”

It was written by a Chicago woman named Rosetta L. Hopkins. She is a neonatal nurse, not a professional writer, and her little volume feels like what it is: the self-published efforts of an amateur. It is also a work of love -- not just love of Barack Obama and his family, but also love of country. “Somebody in the White House Looks Like Me” includes more than two dozen poems written by Hopkins, her thoughts on Barack Obama’s first term as president, and the observations of an array of African-American citizens.

One striking quotation comes from a man identified only as “Mr. Elks,” a 45-year-old physical therapy technician from Chicago. “I don’t see myself as an American,” he told Hopkins. “I see myself as a black man in America, a country I’m not part of. All I ever wanted was to feel like I’m really a part of this country. Obama may give us that.”

It is easy to find fault with the actions of this president, as it is with most of them. Criticizing the man in the Oval Office is as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. Come to think of it, judging by what’s occurring this week in Cairo, expressing dissatisfaction with the presidency may be human nature. Certainly, President Obama’s decisions on a host of issues ranging from budget priorities and health care legislation to U.S. actions (or inactions) in places such as Syria and Libya leave him open to legitimate criticism. Moreover, it’s the right of the citizenry -- and the duty of the press and the opposition party -- to hold the chief executive accountable.

Yet, on this day, with the words of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King echoing through the years, it is also worth reminding ourselves just how uplifting it was to African-Americans to see this man elected -- and re-elected.

On this Independence Day, and on every July 4 since 2009, black parents -- and Hispanic parents, and Asian parents, and those in families of mixed races -- can look their children in the eyes and tell them that the cherished adage about any American growing up to be president is demonstrably true.

For all his self-confidence, Barack Obama often acknowledges that he did not get to the White House on his own. One of those to whom he owes a great debt -- to whom we all owe a debt -- is Frederick Douglass.

When William Lloyd Garrison pointed out that slavery was codified in the Constitution, and that, for all its soaring language, the Declaration was written by a slave owner, Douglass looked deeper. In his 1852 speech in Rochester, he told the white crowd that he took “encouragement” from the Declaration of Independence, and he praised the men who followed Jefferson and Adams and Washington.

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this Republic,” he said. “The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. 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.”

If his audience sensed that a caveat was coming, they were right. The Founders had said they were pledging their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” in the cause of freedom -- and so, Douglass said, they had. The fault, he said, switching gears abruptly, was not with them but with their children and grandchildren. “You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence,” he said.

Seventy-six years after the nation was formed, no rational person could read the language of Jefferson’s Preamble and find in it any justification for slavery, he noted. The Founders hadn’t done everything right, but the message of the Declaration was unmistakable, and it was up to the Americans in the 1850s to find the fortitude to do what they knew to be right. “The Declaration,” Douglass proclaimed, “is the ringbolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny.”

“This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” he continued. “You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems [is] inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”

“It is not light that is needed, but fire,” he added. “It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

All that and more was visited on the nation in a four-year Civil War, which ended slavery but did not end the white notions of racial superiority codified in Jim Crow. And so, a century after Gettysburg, tens of thousands of freedom-loving Americans assembled on the National Mall to hear Martin Luther King Jr. describe a country where Americans wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

On that 1963 day, King’s electrifying “I Have a Dream” chorus was preceded by a soaring preamble of his own. The Declaration of Independence, he said, was a “promissory note” guaranteeing freedom and equal opportunity to Americans of every color. Redeeming that note required a bloody Civil War; redeeming it fully required a Second American Revolution -- the civil rights movement.

But now we know that there was always one more hill to climb, and it took another generation to fully see it.

“When I interviewed people for my book, the older they were, the more they reflected back -- the more surprised they were that this day had happened,” Rosetta Hopkins told me this week. “But now, we see that anything is truly possible. Barack Obama’s election epitomized what King meant when he talked about getting to the mountaintop.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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