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Frederick Douglass Did Not Despair for America and Neither Should We

On Independence Day some Americans cherry pick one of Frederick Douglass’ most famous speeches, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" Delivered on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York, Douglass' speech is often misrepresented as a condemnation of America itself. Some anti-American voices point to portions of Douglass’ speech to bolster their argument that Black Americans should no longer celebrate the Fourth of July. Douglass' message was far more nuanced and ultimately optimistic towards the promise and hope of America. Yes, he called out American hypocrisy towards slavery. However, the point of his full speech is that America’s founding principles of freedom will win out in the end.


For those interested in Douglass’ true message, I encourage you to read the entire speech and not select one liners.  Douglass did not despise America. Instead, he believed in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He viewed these documents as fundamentally anti-slavery and saw them as powerful tools for abolition. "Take the Constitution according to its plain reading," Douglass urged, "and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand, it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the existence of slavery."


Douglass concluded his speech with hope. He asserted, "I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. 'The arm of the Lord is not shortened,' and the doom of slavery is certain." Douglass invoked Isaiah 59:1, affirming his faith in divine justice and the inevitable triumph of freedom and equality.


The Frederick Douglass Foundation rests on Douglass's firm belief that when Americans embrace the freedom enshrined in the Constitution, the nation will rise above its flaws and injustices.


America faces different challenges to freedom today.  But we must embrace them as Douglass did, void of despair and confident that the arm of the Lord is not too short to save the situation.  A perfect example of this in our time is the overturn of Roe V. Wade. For half a century Americans worked to end this abomination.  It seemed an impossible task.  But leaders like our co-founder the late Dean Nelson pushed us forward and like Douglass, he did the work and did not despair.  Today, because Roe is no more tens of thousands of babies are alive and not exterminated through abortion.


Like Douglass, we do not despair. We work towards progress and celebrate the Fourth of July because it represents a step in America’s ongoing journey to freedom.


Kevin Daniels - Kevin Daniels is the Executive Director of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. With a strong background in community engagement and public policy, he has contributed to strategic initiatives aimed at building strong and prosperous communities in North Carolina and around the country. Mr. Daniels lives in North Carolina.




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