Today, on this Fourth of July, I reflect on perhaps the three greatest speeches in our nation’s history, and share incisive passages from each:
Frederick Douglass, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?“, July 4, 1852, Rochester, New York:
“I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. 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. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?
…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 cruelly 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—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 these 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.”
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning.”
I also share with you in its entirety a poignant essay reflecting on the meaning of July 4 at a time when our nation is extremely troubled, broken, and divided, and we witness a terrible backlash against the gains we have made as a country since Dr. King made his speech at the March on Washington.
Darren Walker, “These Truths We Hold and Share,” New York Times, July 4, 2022:
“The heart does not exactly swell with patriotic pride this Independence Day, as the gut absorbs one dizzying, disorienting blow after the next. Our sense of who we are, our very identity as Americans, feels assaulted and violated. Amid profound, painful regression on issue after issue, we are left gasping for breath.
Our nation seems more irreparably divided than ever before in my lifetime, barreling down a parallel path, perhaps, to the one our forebearers traveled in the 1850s.
What we do now matters urgently. And the American identity that we still share matters too, not least because it must inform and inspire a common effort, across our differences, to find our way out and forward. I believe we still can agree on a set of ideas — values and aspirations — enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, 246 years on.
In our founding, I see flawed genius. In the declaration we celebrate, I see a statement of purpose. In our Constitution, I see our founders entrusting each generation to fix what the preceding one was unwilling to repair.
To me, the callous cruelty of our founders — at least 34 of the 56 men who signed the declaration also enslaved human beings — is less remarkable than what they set in motion, however contradictory. They initiated a grand, complicated experiment with self-government that made possible abolition and suffrage, worker’s rights and civil rights and women’s rights, however slowly and unevenly. More astounding still, Black people and brown people, the Indigenous and the immigrant, L.G.B.T.Q. people and people with disabilities, all claimed the American project as our own and expanded the circle of inclusion and opportunity.
Our founders bequeathed to us something radical, something unprecedented: the tools with which to build a multiracial, multiethnic, pluralist democracy that extends the privilege of American identity to all.
My love of America — of the American idea — is unwavering. This laboratory of liberty is worth saving, worth improving.
But I fear we are mired in a culture of absolutism and tearing ourselves apart at the seams.
Everything right now, it seems, is black or white, all or nothing, perfect or unacceptable. Every venue has become a theater for performatively asserting our own virtue or righteousness, or for denying someone else’s. The so-called microaggressions keep getting smaller, the disproportionate penalties bigger. Nuance and complexity, let alone compromise, are nowhere to be found. In their place is a pervasive, paralyzing cynicism. And in turn, our extreme challenges remain extremely unsolved.
Even among those with whom we largely agree, we’ve normalized intolerance and incivility. Among those with whom we disagree, we shame and cancel. We dehumanize and demonize.
Certainly, not everyone is equally culpable or complicit. To suggest that the people and groups denigrating human rights and human dignity are somehow on equal footing with those of us defending them is wrong. This would imply a false moral equivalence.
And make no mistake about my own view: The advocacy of those working to reimagine our society is of a different category from — asymmetrical to — the backlash of those rolling back our rights and fighting to restore an unequal past. The former is challenging us to be better, more inclusive, more equitable. The latter too often is daring us to be worse.
At the same time, at least one outcome of the breakdown is clear and present for us all: a toxicity that threatens to asphyxiate our democracy. Across our country, a foul spirit of nihilism has displaced a forgiving spirit of grace.
In our distorted media, the few loudest voices garner the most coverage and clicks while the conglomerates and social networks reap the rewards. These extremes beget more extremes, coarsening our discourse.
In our politics, we delineate districts and finance campaigns and decide elections in a way that favors purity over persuasion, thus further dividing our national community. Worse, a minoritarian stranglehold — a tyranny of the minority — is suffocating both our democracy and our trust in its institutions.
Finally, inequalities of all kinds both aggravate our challenges and prevent us from joining together in common cause to solve them. For too many Americans — of every color and creed, in red states and blue — the mobility escalator has ground to a halt, setting in place an inescapable, insidious hopelessness. When so many millions live on an economic precipice, they respond with anxiety, resentment and grievance; the forces exploiting them, with ongoing mendacity and impunity.
To break the vicious cycle in which we have trapped ourselves, we must define and agree on new rules of engagement for the commons, online and off.
First, we must make new, open space: places where people of good will, operating in good faith, can speak and listen, with authenticity and vulnerability, without fear that they’re using the wrong word or phrase, without self-censorship. Perhaps this is how we begin to reject the zero-sum thinking that says, “If the other side wins on anything, my side loses on everything” — how we begin to turn toward each other, at a time when it’s so easy to turn away or simply turn off.
We also must embrace one another’s shared humanity — across the breach, to heal the breach — which means we must at least tolerate the expression of views with which we disagree.
Among all the Enlightenment Age ideals that informed our founders, tolerance — that stuffy, unsatisfying triumph of classical liberalism — predicated the civil rights and civil liberties we cherish.
Our founders knew from experience: The alternative to tolerance was violence, the religious and ethnic strife that had bloodied centuries of European history. Make no mistake: The future could hold the same in store for us.
How do we forestall this tragedy? By rediscovering and recommitting to our American identity, to these truths we still hold: Out of many, we are one — because we believe in what Frederick Douglass called “absolute equality.” We believe in equal representation, equal rights and equal justice; that happiness is a pursuit, not an achievement, realized through self-determination, but also tolerance, generosity and reason.
To be sure, some dismiss this tradition as fruit from a poisoned tree, and the facts are undeniable. The United States’ history as a functioning democracy only began in 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation to guarantee the franchise — and even the Voting Rights Act’s protections are now imperiled in many states, as other fundamental rights are thrown into new jeopardy.
And yet what makes America great is not the fact of our perfection but our act of becoming more perfect. What makes the American people exceptional is that we have the strength to acknowledge our failings — moral, structural, personal — and the courage to make wrong into right.
Anger and grief are not unreasonable. I share the outrage and despair that many appropriately feel about America’s backsliding. But this cannot be a reason to cede our patriotism. Our ancestors and elders, today’s social justice leaders on the front lines, all have sacrificed too much for us to give up on America now.
And patriotism can take as many forms as there are perspectives. Love of country can mean placing your hand on your heart during the national anthem or kneeling on one knee. It can mean serving as a police officer or a first responder to keep our neighborhoods safe, or protesting in those very same streets. The declaration itself was an act of defiant resistance.
However we give voice to our patriotism, let’s step away from the extremes and from the edge, away from the sanctimony and certitude. Let’s build longer bridges, not higher walls. The cost of the alternative is greater than any of us can bear.
Let’s resolve to listen with humility, curiosity and empathy — with open hearts and minds. Let’s resolve to extend the presumption of grace and the benefit of the doubt.
The road to enduring justice runs through reconciliation, and the road to reconciliation runs through truth.
One of our hard truths is that, as the poet says, America has never been America. Another truth is that it can be still, and it must be, and it will be — if we renew our fidelity to the values that bind us, both despite and because of our differences.”