Considering White Supremacy
Then & Now
Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852, Speech
An annotated version
Donald Trump, at a breakfast with African-American supporters marking the start of African-American History Month, described famed 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass as "an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more." Feb. 2, 2017
Before moving to the “Civil War and Reconstruction” period (1861-1877) and the Jim Crow era (1877-1954), it will serve us well, when considering white supremacy in U.S. History, to look at a primary document from the 1850-1860 period. The best one, I believe, is Frederick Douglass’s 1852 “4th of July” speech in Rochester, New York, to a gathering of abolitionists. The following, then, is an (abridged) annotated version of Douglas’s text, raising questions (and issues) for a 2019 audience.
Introduction: On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester's Corinthian Hall. It was biting oratory, in which the speaker told his audience, "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." And he asked them, "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?"
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and 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?
In our current society, particularly under the current Administration, don’t the same questions Douglas raises in 1852 apply to minority and marginalized people even today?
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 sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, 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.
If we examine statistics regarding incarceration, criminal arrests (not necessarily convictions), and other blatant indications of institutionalized racism in our legal system, we again hear Douglas’s words echoing in 2019.
My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave's point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America.is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery the great sin and shame of America! I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just. (italics mine)
Are we not, still, “false to the past, false to the present, false to the future” in our school/neighborhood segregation, in our criminal justice system, in our gerrymandered voting districts? As Douglas noted in 1852, his words can only be denied by someone “whose judgment is …blinded by prejudice.” The institutionalization of those prejudices, and the establishment of white supremacy date from 1619 to the present --- Douglas was simply calling it out in his 4th of July speech in 1852.
There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!
We need only look at our incarceration rates, death row population percentages, and the Innocence Project statistics to see how Douglas’s focus on Black “criminality” remains a prominent feature in our current society. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Whites comprise 64% of the general population and 30% of the prison population. Blacks are only 12% of the general population but 33% of the prison population! (Hispanics are 16% gen-pop & 23% prison pop). Regarding the Death Row population: Whites 42.03% and Blacks 41.38% --- a clear indication that Blacks are lethally targeted by the “justice” system far more than Whites. The Innocence Project --- “a non-profit legal organization that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing and to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice” (wiki), co-founded by my Yale classmate, Barry Scheck --- has helped exonerate 362 wrongly convicted people, with Blacks constituting 61% of those (Whites 30%, Latinx, 8%). All these statistics strongly reinforce how white supremacy is still alive and well in the USA in 2019.
For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian's God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!
I would make the same case here in 2019, particularly given an administration that has, time and again, demonstrated its commitment to white, male supremacy. It’s not a North/South issue (as if it ever were) --- it’s a United States of America issue. Consider that even when Blacks achieve positions of “power” in professional fields (law, medicine, academia, etc.) there is an undertow (from whites) tugging at the achievement, with whispers that “affirmative action” is the only reason “those people” are where they are. Consider how the President uses ethnic difference (White vs. Black/Latinx) to further polarize our Red and Blue states. Look at that list of jobs Douglas enumerates --- and consider how the creation of this nation depended on Black contributions (whether they wanted to our not!)
1852. 2019. 167 years. Yes, there has been “progress.” But have we, as a nation, lived up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence (written 243 years ago!). Have all our citizens benefitted? When we consider the histories of Blacks, Native Americans, Latinx people, Asian-Americans, and other minority/marginal groups (the Jews), we can see that history, indeed, has been written by the "victors" and, clearly, “whitewashed.” It is time to acknowledge our history and consider, in fact, the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee, as South Africa did after their apartheid ended. It’s time.
Tomorrow: The Civil War - Part One