What, To The American Slave, Is Your Fourth Of July?

On July 5th, 1892, Frederick Douglass took the stage at a meeting of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association. He had been invited there to deliver an Independence Day address. He opened with these words: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today?”

It had been 27 years since the Civil War had ended and the 13th amendment enacted. Enough time, perhaps, that the women of the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Association assumed that Douglass would be brimming with patriotic pride and primed to deliver a moving Independence Day message.

Instead, with typical fiery eloquence, Douglass told the audience that the Fourth of July was, in essence, a day of mourning for slaves and former slaves; yet another reminder of the unfulfilled promises of the equal justice promised in the Declaration of Independence. ‘The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro’ should be mandatory reading for every American.

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?”

Slavery isn’t simply an abhorrent practice that ended in 1865. The word ‘slavery’ is mentioned for the first time in the 13th Amendment, which, contrary to what is taught in school, does not abolish slavery in all its forms. Instead, the 13th Amendment gives constitutional protection to the institution of American slavery.

It reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Except as a punishment for a crime. During the era of Reconstruction, Southerners made quick work of the 13th’s legal loophole, arresting blacks for minor infractions and then selling their labor to private companies through convict leasing.

There is not 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.

The legacy of Jim Crow lives on; in 2017, the majority of black men and women in prison were arrested for drug crimes. Despite white Americans using drugs at the same rate, they are imprisoned for drug crimes 20 to 50 times less frequently.

“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.”

Modern-day inmates are, in the eyes of the law, slaves to the government; working for pennies per hour - or nothing at all - with significant profits thickening the wallets of major corporations (including, but not limited to, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Verizon, and Whole Foods). 

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, over 600,000 inmates have daily jobs which help prisons to function smoothly (food preparation, custodial work, landscaping, library work, etc.) while an additional 12,278 federal inmates generated $472 million in sales last year through their participation in the Federal Prison’s Unicor program, where they manufacture items ranging from eyeglasses to furniture. The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research institution, estimates that the prison industrial industry grosses $2 billion annually, employing nearly 1 million prisoners in some capacity. Mandatory work programs in federal prisons can pay up to a maximum of $1.15 per hour; state prisons average roughly 20 cents an hour. In Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas, prisoners are not paid at all. 

Slavery lives on in American prisons. Its lifeblood is the arrest and jailing of (mostly black and brown) people for low-level drug crimes. The private prison industry, buoyed by the support of the Trump administration, grosses billions of dollars annually, and spends equally eye-watering sums of money in lobbying politicians to protect it.

A multi-billion dollar industry; a fortune made on the free or mostly-free labor of our nation’s most disenfranchised citizens. For cruelty and shameless hypocrisy, America continues to reign without rival.

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.

Read Douglass’s full speech here.