Can you imagine the looks on their faces in the audience when abolitionist Frederick Douglass, speaking at a commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, asked the question, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
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Many historians proclaim that speech of July 5, 1852, called “ The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” to have been among Douglass' greatest orations. Pointing out the hypocrisy of owning slaves while celebrating independence, he said, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn … Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Nearly 163 years since that speech, America is far from perfect. But even Frederick Douglass might agree that the extent that we have come since emerging from slavery to freedom is something worth celebrating.
It was largely by exercising the five tenets of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that we won the many freedoms we enjoy today. In 2015, it is by these five tenets that we continue to plead our causes:
1. Freedom of religion. It has enabled the black church and religious organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, cofounded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to historically serve as places of comfort, encouragement and even headquarters for organizing movements for justice.
2. Freedom of speech. It has given us the liberty to publicly express the pains that result from persistent inequalities and racial disparities.
3. Freedom of the press. We may not always agree with the perspective, but the media often help to tell our story and plead our cause.
4. Freedom to peaceably assemble. From the sit-ins of the 1950s to the 1963 March on Washington, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the “Black Lives Matter” protests and assemblies sweeping America in 2015, our right to peaceful protest has effected change across the nation and drawn the attention of the world.
5. Freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances. When I think of other nations where people are thrown in prison or even killed for simply disagreeing with, much less challenging their government, I realize how blessed we are as a nation despite our imperfections.
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So, as we enjoy our vacations, cookouts, yard parties, family reunions, fireworks displays or however we choose to celebrate this Independence Day, there is indeed much for which to be thankful — including our First Amendment rights. Happy Fourth of July!
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