The Fourth of July is a time to celebrate America’s highest ideals, including our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s an exuberant event filled with optimism about how a free and self-governing nation can create a better world.
But this year’s celebration was immediately followed by the killing of a black man — Alton Sterling — by white police officers in Baton Rouge.
The circumstances of that killing serve as a bitter reminder of our nation’s most troubling national sin. As I read about that tragic shooting and watched the heartbreaking video of a teenage boy missing his Daddy, I couldn’t help but think of a Fourth of July speech delivered long ago by Frederick Douglas.
Douglas was born a slave, but escaped to become a leading abolitionist, statesman, and powerful speaker. In 1852, on the nation’s 76th birthday, he began his speech with rhetoric that is comfortable and familiar:
“The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too; great enough to give frame to a great age… They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
Douglas was willing to celebrate the principles the founders of our nation so articulately described, but he made it very clear that the nation was not living according to those principles. Instead, he offered a different and painful perspective of our national celebration:
“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. 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 denunciation 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.”
What stings about these words is that Douglas was right. We have, of course, come a long way since then. But the killing of Alton Sterling shows just how far we still have to go.
For those who want to make America great, that 1852 speech provides a great roadmap. It celebrates the nation’s founding ideals of freedom and self-governance. It acknowledges the ways our nation is failing to live up to those ideals. Most importantly, it makes clear that the path forward is not to compromise our ideals, but to live up to them.