National Commentary

July 4th: Taking our Cue from Frederick Douglass

By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

NNPA Columnist

        Though the keynote address was delivered 163 years ago in Rochester, N.Y. on the significance of the 4th of July celebration in the United States, the roaring eloquence and penetrating clarity of Frederick Douglass’ speech still rings true today. Slavery and its lingering aftermath in America continues to be the albatross around the neck of our democracy that chokes the quality of life for millions of African Americans and others who cry out freedom, justice, equality and prosperity.


       History captures both transformative events and the evolution of impactful epochs of the long journey of humankind. Yet, the history of the times and outspoken courage of leaders such as Frederick Douglass challenges all of us not just to remember the past, but to learn from it and be determined to fight for a better future for all who have been denied basic fairness and respect.

       As our nation prepares for its annual celebration of Independence Day, I re-read Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech with a specific eye toward what we can learn from it in the wake of the recent tragedies of Charleston and North Charleston, S.C.; Cleveland; New York City; Ferguson, Mo. and Sanford, Fla.

       Frederick Douglass observed, “Oppression makes a wise man mad. With brave men there is always a remedy for oppression…The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history – the very ringbolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny…Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance.

       “I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ringbolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost. 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…What, to the American slave, is your 4th 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 the constant victim.”

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       A little more than a week ago we were still mourning. This time, in Charleston, S.C. for the racially motivated murders of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight others at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. But our spirit and our determination to be free will not be broken even after centuries of cruelty and oppression. Giving up out of fear or giving in to injustice are not and will not be in our menu of options. The spirits of David Walker, Denmark Vesey, and of Frederick Douglass live on within us.

       Douglass’ intellectual imperatives are quite appropriate to reject the contemporary tolerance of poverty, injustice and ignorance. We have to move beyond removing the “symbols” of racism and oppression, such as the Confederate flag, to removing the substantive structures and policies that deny equal opportunity to advance and improve the quality of life of all Americans.

       The issue today is not what the Confederate flag represents. The real issue should be what does the American flag represent to African Americans and others who yearn for freedom? How are American businesses and institutions of higher learning making a difference for millions of people throughout the country who aspire to prosper and to make our world a better place for all people?

       An appropriate response to Douglass’ admonitions would be: (1) Education – maximizing high quality equal education for all without discrimination or restriction because of race, color, gender, creed or any other form of social exclusion. (2) Criminal justice reform and overcriminalization – there are simply too many people imprisoned in America, more than 1 million disproportionately African American and Latino American. (3) Principled entrepreneurial development – with a particular emphasis on economic equality and inclusiveness in the global marketplace.

       In his eulogy of Rev. Pinckney, President Obama set the right tone when he talked about removing the nation’s blindness to poverty and racial injustice. Let’s raise up the next generation of “amazing” young gifted and talented geniuses who are currently entrapped in the ghettos and barrios of America’s impoverished neighborhoods.

       Let’s flood our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other universities with scholarships and career opportunities to prepare a new generation of young leaders to carry America forward in STEM fields of study and research.              

Let’s give the million or more prisoners in American jails and prisons a chance to redeem their lives and families with advanced training and academic preparation. Combined, all of this would constitute an “Amazing Grace.”

       The words of Frederick Douglass reverberate today with a renewed sense of urgency and commitment to organize and mobilize a new, bi-partisan coalition to bring about real change in America. The executive, legislative and judicial branches of the U.S. government now appear poised to finally begin to work together in the interest of empowering all the people. But we must not be silent witnesses. We must be vocal. We must stand without fear. It is time once again, in the spirit of Douglass, to speak truth to power to empower!

 Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is the President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and can be reached for national advertisement sales and partnership proposals at:; and for lectures and other professional consultations at:

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