Frederick Douglass’ descendants recite his famous speech about July 4th

Author: Leah Asmelash / CNN
Published: Updated:

For the Fourth of July, Frederick Douglass‘ descendants read excerpts of his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Douglass, an abolitionist who fought for social reform in the 1800s, delivered the speech on July 5, 1852 at an Independence Day celebration, pointing out the hypocrisy in the holiday and in the Founding Fathers’ ideals.

On Saturday, five of Douglass’ descendants — Douglass Washington Morris II, 20, Isidore Dharma Douglass Skinner, 15, Zoë Douglass Skinner, 12, Alexa Anne Watson, 19 and Haley Rose Watson, 17 — recited the speech in a short film for NPR.

“The U.S. celebrates this Independence Day amid nationwide protests and calls for systemic reforms,” NPR stated in the description of the film. “In this short film, five young descendants of Frederick Douglass read and respond to excerpts of his famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” which asks all of us to consider America’s long history of denying equal rights to Black Americans.”

In his speech, Douglass says: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

That section is also read in the 7-minute video by NPR.

It continues, both by Douglass in 1852 and by his descendants in the video, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth 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 denunciations 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.”

After reciting excerpts, his descendants responded to what they’d read.

“This speech was written almost 170 years ago, but this part of it is still extremely relevant, especially with today’s protests,” said Douglass Washington Morris II.

“While the Fourth of July probably does not feel the same to me as it does to others, I wouldn’t say that it has no meaning because it is the time when America as a country became free from another country,” said Alexa Anne Watson. “But I would say it’s not the time in which I gained my freedom.”

Isidore Dharma Douglass Skinner closes out the video on an optimistic note, saying: “I think in many ways we are still slaves to the notion that it will never get better, but I think that there is hope and I think that it’s important that we celebrate Black joy and Black life and we remember that change is possible, change is probable and that there’s hope.”

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