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This weekend, even in the midst of a pandemic  that has already killed almost 130,00 Americans and with cases once again on the rise in many parts of the nation, Donald Trump will be hosting a July 4th celebration complete with fireworks at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Thousands of people are expected to attend even as social distancing and wearing of masks are not required despite CDC guidelines. Oh, and let’s not forget the dire warnings by park officials and the local government that holding a fireworks display at this time during an extremely dry season could result in devastating, even deadly wildfires as embers fall from the sky.

I have no doubt that Mr. Trump sees this as one more photo-op, a chance to make himself appear Presidential especially in such an iconic location in front of thousands of his supporters who, most of whom see Mr. Trump’s disdain for wearing masks, social distancing, and the public health in general as some sort of manly-man leadership.

And of course, they will get to hear one more of Mr. Trump’s self-aggrandizing, “Make America Great Again” speeches. They will cheer and hoot, and applaud, and boo the perceived enemies he mocks in the speech, especially those people who, over the course of the past weeks have been marching and protesting against police brutality and for racial justice. Mr. Trump will condemn everyone who disagrees with him while his followers, his cult members, will hail the speech as a fine example of American political oratory, and leave for their homes having been satiated by his domestic jingoism and his now tedious use of the catch-phrase of “law and order,” a phrase used by past Republican Presidents like Richard Nixon ,Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. If he is true to form, I doubt the speech that Donald Trump will give on this July 4th will go down in the history books as worthy of anything other than a passing mention.

While many Americans may take the time to read the Declaration of Independence, (a good idea I think,) or the words of some of the founders of the nation, I want to suggest that there is one speech that every American should read, a speech that should be required reading in every American history class beginning in Junior High School.

On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass, the former slave become abolitionist, social reformer, and one of the greatest orators in our history, at the invitation of the  Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, NY, delivered a speech that has come to be known by the title, “What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July?”

You may have heard or read portions of the speech. It is the most widely circulated of his writings apart from his autobiography. It is written and was delivered in Douglass’ typical fiery and prophetic voice and his words are as powerful, challenging, and ring as true today as they did 168 years ago when they were first spoken:
“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?

Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”

But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of 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 light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth 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? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth’…

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 sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation 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 the 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….”


We can imagine him today, standing on a dais delivering virtually the same speech, condemning police brutality, racial and economic injustice, mass incarceration, voter suppression, and the 400 years old shameful legacy of slavery and systemic racism. We can hear his deep, powerful, gripping voice as he tells us what the nation needs:

“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

I believe that if Douglass were among us today, he would tell us the same thing. We must ask ourselves, especially those of us who live with the benefits of white privilege, what to the black person living in America today, is our 4th of July? What to the person of color or the immigrant is our 4th of July? And we can extend that question to our family and friends in the LGBTQ+ community, to our Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, citizens, and other faith traditions.

Until the benefits of freedom enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are fully and freely extended to everyone in our nation, until the conscience of white America is roused, its propriety startled, its hypocrisy exposed, and its crimes against God and humanity proclaimed and denounced, no one is truly free.

I encourage you to read and re-read Frederick Douglass’ speech. Read it with your spouse, with your congregation. Read it with your children. Talk about it, discuss it. And let Douglass’ words encourage you to commitment and action in these difficult and challenging days.

Here is a link to an abridged text of Douglass speech:

If you would like to read the full speech, here is a link to it:


Peace and Light,
Rev. Paul Dodenhoff