What is your Fourth of July?

On July 5th, 1852, to a packed assembly hall in Rochester, New York, former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas gave one of the greatest speeches in our nation’s history. In it, he asks,

“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.”

In a speech that lasted a little over 20 minutes, Douglas reminded his audience, which included then-president Millard Fillmore, that while the Declaration of Independence was a brave and noble step toward the absolute emancipation of all Americans, the Constitution on the other hand was complicit and friendly toward slavery and systemic inequality.

Douglas’s words are still relevant today, because they remind us of the treacherous chasm between an institution’s founding ideals and its institutional practice. The American dream is beautiful and noble. The American reality, less so. True, we have made great progress, but progress should not be mistaken for victory.

“I am glad, fellow-citizens, that our nation is so young,” said Douglas, noting that there was still time to put the nation on track before it reached maturity. But we are not as young as we used to be, and we still have a lot of growing up to do.

“But I do not despair of this country… a change has now come over the affairs of mankind… Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe…. No abuse, no outrage, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light.”

Let us hope he is still right.