A full century-and-a-half before President Barack Obama began mesmerizing the country with his moving oratory, another Black man gave what some call his greatest speech.
Frederick Douglass had not only a White parent and fatherless upbringing in common with America’s future leader; he also shared Obama’s vision to change government. It was in Rochester, New York, July 1852 when the ex-slave challenged White slavery opponents to step up their game, giving the speech that author David W. Blight describes as “abolition’s rhetorical masterpiece.”
“Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today?” Douglass asked. “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.”
In “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass treats listeners to approximately 20 minutes of scathing rebuke of America’s “fraud” and “deception” about an institution that no longer exists. But Ohio scholar Dr. Imelda Hunt says the speech is relevant in 2009.
“For freed slaves then and for African Americans now, Douglass’ speech is a transforming truth that charges us to continue to keep our eyes on the prize and to continue our struggle for justice,” Hunt says. “Likewise, his very famous speech underscores the different cultural values of African Americans, who are victims of an imperfect system, but who are pressured to assimilate by the dominant culture, in spite of these injustices. How ironic that Douglass’ audience celebrates a democracy whose flawed justice did not allow their speaker to make a comparable living for his family because of the color his skin.”
Hunt, who teaches African American Culture and Diversity at Toledo’s Owens College, echoes sentiments often shared by historians and activists familiar with Douglass’ speech.
While families celebrate July 4 with fireworks and cookouts, Douglass’ words foretold an image that Obama works to change following war in Iraq and corporate money schemes: “Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World…search out every abuse…lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival. ”