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LEON: The Meaning of July Fourth for the African-American

Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III | 7/3/2014, 12:17 p.m.

"I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this 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." — Frederick Douglas, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" (1852)

As America celebrates July Fourth, as the grills smoke, the salads are tossed, pools filled, and fireworks displayed, take a moment to reflect. Reflect upon how far we have come as a nation and yet how far we have to go.

I implore African-Americans to read the entire text of Frederick Douglas' famous speech, "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." Are we as a people able to enjoy the blessings, the justice, and the liberty that are celebrated on this day?

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Wilmer Leon

We have become all too familiar with the data. According to Bread for the World, one in four African-Americans lives below the federal poverty line and more than a third (35.7 percent) of all African-American children live in poverty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for 2013, the underemployment rate for African-American workers was 13.4 percent compared to 6.7 percent for white workers. That does not account for those who have lost faith in the process and dropped out of the system. The Pew Research Center reports that the median net worth of households for Whites is $113,149 and for African-Americans is $5,677. The NAACP reports that African-Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million of the incarcerated population. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of Whites.

These are just a few examples of the frightening realities with which we are faced.

Douglas asked, "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." Yes, slavery ended in 1865 but that two hundred- fifty years of slavery was followed by ninety years of Jim Crow; sixty years of separate but equal and thirty-five years of racist housing policy.

Yes, legislative and judicial progress have been made. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 provided for the equality of citizens of the United States in the enjoyment of "civil rights and immunities." That Act was undermined by the Tilden/Hayes Compromise of 1877. We have recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and will soon celebrate the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. One problem is that too many have confused the legislative successes with the ultimate victory, namely, changing the racist core and premise upon which this country was founded as memorialized in the U.S. Constitution.