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Independence Day and Race in America

July 04, 1996

Today is the 4th of July, the day the American colonies declared their Independence from England in 1776. While many Americans will hang flags, participate in parades, watch fireworks and wax patriotic, Independence Day is not a cause for celebration for all. For Native Americans, it is yet another bitter reminder of colonialism which brought disease, violence, genocide and destruction of their culture and way of life. For African Americans, Independence Day did not extend to them — while white colonists were declaring their freedom from the crown, that liberation was not shared with millions of Africans captured, beaten, separated from their families and forced into brutal slavery thousands of miles away from home. Later on Democracy Now — we’ll fast forward to explore the legacy of that original sin — On this Independence Day Special, we’ll hear the story of an amazing friendship between an exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan and a black civil rights activist — a story that offers hope for healing in our racially divided nation.

One of the most powerful voices of the abolition movement was Frederick Douglass, born a slave in Maryland in 1818. As a young boy Douglass was taught how to read by slaveholder Sophia Auld. It was a dangerous and radical act that changed his destiny. Douglass escaped from slavery in the 1830s and became a leader in the growing campaign against slavery, through lectures, and his antislavery newspaper "The North Star." On July 4th, 1852, Douglass delivered one of his most powerful speeches against slavery in Rochester New York. Here’s an excerpt of the Fourth of July Oration, by Frederick Douglass.

TAPE: DRAMATIC READING OF FREDERICK DOUGLASs, "FOURTH OF JULY ORATION," from 1852 in Rochester, New York. -Frederick Douglas’ "4th of July oration" 1852, read by Bernard White of Pacifica station WBAI in New York.