I will not welcome the 2020 Fourth of July with a celebration. Instead, I will embrace the holiday as a time for introspection, a time to reexamine many of our national narratives. We are today a nation that has never lived up to our founding myth and it is time for us to take stock and correct our ways.
I begin with the words Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave speaking to a white crowd gathered in 1852 for an Independence Day Celebration in Rochester, New York.
Douglass, who became an American reformer and statesman, complimented the authors of the Declaration of Independence. They were, he said, “brave men and for the good they did and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
He then altered course and clearly spelled out America’s glaring hypocrisy: There is “a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance that separates us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.
No Justice, Liberty, Prosperity or Independence
“The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn… My business, if I have any here today, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.”
Three things strike me about this speech. First, this former slave recognized and honored those who brought the idea of America into being; second, ten years before the emancipation, this black man had the immense courage to tell his white audience that their country was not living up to its ideals; and third, Douglass (who had been whipped and beaten by his former “owners” and certainly had cause to be bitter and seek revenge) tells them to focus on “the ever-living now.”
But I am certain that by invoking the present Douglass wasn’t suggesting that we should forget the past, that we should consider our national conscious cleansed of slavery’s dark stain on the soul of white America. No, I think he was calling those white listeners to take ownership of the nation’s tragic shortcomings and correct them. He was demanding action “now” that would distribute the inheritance of justice, liberty, and prosperity equally across all Americans, regardless of race.
Today, 168 years later, the indelible stain of slavery remains, and it cannot be washed away…ever. We white Americans can bandage our tragic flaws in red, white and blue bunting and continue to live the myth that we today are a nation or justice, equality, and liberty. But to do so would be living a lie.
The general principles of freedom, justice and equality remain elusive for many in America today, and those of us who enjoy the benefits have a responsibility to ensure that they become blessings to all. Throughout the nation’s history (and continuing today) law, custom and bigotry have blocked avenues of full freedom for people solely because of their race.
The streets of America today are alive with young people of all races who are ready to take ownership of this country and to end to our hypocrisy. They are demanding–––not asking, but demanding––-that America’s unequal justice system; America’s economic, educational and social disparities; and America’s imbedded white racism be excised and replaced. It is time for their elders to stand with them in the ever living now. We must come together, take action and ensure “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed” to us is shared equally by all Americans.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.