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Frederick Douglass at 200: Still Bringing the Thunder

February 10, 2018 in History

By Yohuru Williams

Framed daguerreotype portrait of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. (Credit: J. R. Eyerman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

History Reads is a weekly series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham…your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings…are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.

…Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body?… There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know that slavery is wrong for him.

…At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I 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 denounced.

—Frederick Douglass, excerpt from his ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ speech, delivered July 5, 1852

On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, it becomes more important than ever to take a deeper look at this titan of American history. His name sits in the pantheon of Black History month figures, but too often, we are served up just the celebratory highlights of their lives, minus the messy parts. In Douglass’s case, the escaped slave became one of the nation’s most powerful voices against human bondage—arguably the most influential civil- and human-rights advocate of the 19th century.

But perhaps his greatest legacy? He never shied away from those messy parts.

Because even as he wowed 19th-century audiences in the U.S. and England with his soaring eloquence and patrician …read more


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