The 4th of July is inspired by the American War of Independence from 1775 to 1776. Tension between England and the Colonies grew severe and gave way to war. John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, was then governor of Virginia at the time. Rumor had it that he, along with other governors were sharing with the King of England that colonists were growing fiercely agitated and wanted their independence from Britain!
British armies rushed to the colonies. The war began!
After the war, just as the founders of the country began to organize the United States as a Democratic Republic, some say that Thomas Jefferson mentioned the issue of freeing the slaves in a meeting in historic Williamsburg.
Jefferson’s proposal was met with resistance based heavily on economic reasons. If the slaves were freed, they felt that the foundation of the country would quickly become economically weak. The slaves were the economic engine in produce, manufacturing, home economics, and more.
Black people made up approximately 52% of Williamsburg by the late 18th century. The rest of the colonies had their fair share of slaves, also. Yet, slaves were not considered people. The colonists maintained the historic sentiment that black slaves were of a race other than the human race. This had been the mindset from early on when the Englishmen discovered dark skinned Africans.
The mindset that blacks were less than human was handed down for several generations; by the 18th century, it blinded the English colonists from the obvious reality that true freedom was not fulfilled as long as they were holding people in slavery.
The whole concept of “race” was manufactured to locate black slaves in a class within the animal kingdom by themselves – of lower creature status than the Europeans. Both the slave industry and the slave production engine were lucrative enterprises in their eyes. Black slavery was merely the machine to build the white colonists’ developing country.
So, when the colonists declared that “all men were created equal,” most of them where not thinking that such eloquent words included the black slaves.
While I am inclined to believe that those as intelligent as Jefferson, Madison and some of the other founding fathers must have at least thought of the implications of the language “all men are created equal,” there seems to have been a blinder over the general public’s eyes as to the depth of such important statement in the Declaration of Independence. The phrase was prophetic, bearing implications for future eradication of slavery. Nearly a century later, these words were foundational to the Emancipation Proclamation.
Interestingly, the colonists fought incessantly for their freedom from British rule; yet they were numb to the pressure they inflicted and the liberty they forfeited the black slaves. It is mind boggling to imagine how slavery was so engrained in the immoral fibers that weaved the country for so long.
Freedom is part of what it means to be truly human. The colonists saw freedom as having such sacred worth when it would benefit them but were blinded to it when it came to those whom they oppressed.
Nearly a hundred years after the American Revolution, Frederick Douglass praised the insurmountable patriotism, heroism, and intelligence that the leaders of the American Revolution possessed.
At the same time, Douglass pointed out the great contradiction that plagued the same revolution. As for the so-called Christians, Douglass called them hypocrites. His speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” expounds upon the undeniable hypocrisy that weaved its way through the fabric of early American development.
In the words of Frederick Douglass, “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?”
This profound question is momentous in black history– a version of American history that is far too romanticized. Thanks to Douglass, Sojourner Truth and several other unnamed men and women (abolitionists) for their unsung patriotism, bravery, and intellect. The American abolitionists were the patriots who fought the extra fight. They jolted the American conscience until the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
I celebrate the abolitionists today because their legacy birthed the patriotism of people with dark skin just as that of the founding Fathers.
In the 19th century, Douglass boldly critiqued the Fourth of July saying (in part):
‘I say it with 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 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 light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.’
If Douglass and countless other men and women of centuries past could be here today, undoubtedly, they would join me in flipping Douglass’ agony to much more joyful words. Douglass’ speech (in part) might look something like this:
‘I say it with a [joyous] sense of the [freedom] between [blacks and whites]. I am [-] included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the [-] measurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, [are] enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, [and by in large part] by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, [and almost fully] mine. You may rejoice, I must [rejoice as we fight the good fight together to get the fullness of freedom].
Lincoln’s 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” was an important milestone in the fight for black people’s freedom; however, the path of implementing the fullness of that freedom has been long and rough. Jim Crow sustained the heinous culture of slavery even when laws changed. One hundred years after Lincoln’s proclamation, blacks were still held hostage by the evils of racism. The 20th century Civil Rights Movement broke the back of Jim Crow. Today, we have come a long way. Many more people enjoy the product of freedom for which so many of our fore-parents fought. Yet, a culture of haves and have nots, privileged and under privileged sustains systemic, cultural, and social ills along racial lines.
With the fight for freedom in mind, my family and I celebrate what this country has meant to us. Yet, with the need for much more freedom in mind, today ignites within me the desire to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. The fight for freedom is not over until all people of the world enjoy the “sacred and undeniable” truth (Jefferson’s original wording for the Declaration of Independence) that all people are created equal.
We cannot afford to go backwards. We must go forward. When we see young people sold as sex slaves; continued systems of privileged and underprivileged; mass incarceration disproportionately within ethnic communities; unequal pay for equal work; equal opportunities to excel; and a plethora of other injustices, we must admit that we have not arrived at true freedom and justice for all.
We have tasted the sweetness that freedom brings and know its value. We must fight together so that everyone experiences the freedom that affords all human beings the privilege of an equal experience of freedom. As long as there are injustices such as the privileged and under privileged, unequal pay for equal work, human trafficking, injustice in the justice system, mass incarcerations among people of color, inequality in education, and economic injustice, and babies are not given the privilege of birth there remains a need to fight for freedom.
Freedom must be systematized as well as socialized. We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. So, while we celebrate this 4th of July, remember that the holiday calls for a renewed fight for freedom.
Let freedom ring again and again!
Happy 4th of July!
(Versions of this article has been published in the Christian Post and other media outlets.)
Antipas Harris (PhD), the founder and president of the Urban Renewal Center, Norfolk, Va.. He is also a minister, professor, and research scholar.
Dr. Antipas Harris