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The Civil War was less than a decade away when Douglass gave this speech, in which he referred to Independence Day celebrations that took place the previous day:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame 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….
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” 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. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!

The speech is a reminder of how enslaved Americans viewed the Fourth of July in the mid-19th century, and it continues to resonate today amid a renewed national discussion about reparations for slavery.

“It provides a different view of what that moment in history meant to hundreds of thousands of Americans; that black people are forgotten on the Fourth of July in America prior to the Civil War, and the wholesale celebration of it is an indication of the dismissal of a race, and the experiences of an entire race,” William Green, a professor and historian at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, told MinnPost, a nonprofit nonpartisan journalism enterprise.


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