I wonder if the audience knew what was coming.
At its Fourth of July event in 1852 —almost a decade before the Civil War—the city of Rochester, New York, asked Frederick Douglass to speak. The freed slave (who also educated himself, became a noted orator, writer, and social reformer) agreed, but delivered a stunning speech that was anything but a traditional celebration of our nation’s liberty.
Here Danny Glover performs a brilliant version of that speech.
Narrator (Howard Zinn): Frederick Douglass, former slave, editor of the abolitionist newspaper The North Star, was asked to give a speech in 1852 in Rochester on the Fourth of July.
Danny Glover, reading from Douglass’ speech that day: Mr. President, friends and fellow citizens. He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before an assembly more shrinkingly nor with greater distrust of my ability than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. Fellow citizens, pardon me. Allow me to ask. Why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and the natural justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions. Then would my task be light and my burden easy and delightful.
But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.
At a time like this, scorching irony not convincing argument is needed. Oh, had I the ability and could I reach the nation's ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed but fire. It is not the gentle shower but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake, 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 its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
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 in 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, your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence, your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery. Your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy, a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. 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.
Go where you may. Search where you will. Roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world. Travel through South America. Search out every abuse. And when you have found the last, 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 a rival.