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Frederick Douglass' descendants read 'What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?'


What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? That is a question Frederick Douglass posed 170 Julys ago. A group of abolitionists had invited him to speak on the fourth, but he opted instead for the fifth and gave perhaps his most famous speech.


That speech confronted the glaring hypocrisy of a day celebrating freedom in a country that still endorsed the bondage and forced labor of more than 1 in 8 of its residents. And while the institution of slavery has been abolished, its consequences have endured through the generations.

ALEXA ANNE WATSON: I am the great-great-great-granddaughter of Frederick Douglass.

DOUGLASS WASHINGTON MORRIS: Frederick Douglass is my great-great-great-great...

ZOE DOUGLASS SKINNER: I've been counting on my fingers since I was, like, 5.

ISIDORE DOUGLASS SKINNER: I am the great-great-great-great-grandchild of Frederick Douglass.

CHANG: Two years ago, NPR asked some of Frederick Douglass' descendants to read excerpts of that speech - one that still troubles the conscience of America. And today we thought we would revisit his words.

HALEY ROSE WATSON: (Reading) This is the Fourth of July. It is the birthday of your national independence and of your political freedom.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) Fellow citizens, I shall not presume to dwell at length on the associations that cluster about this day. The simple story of it is that 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects.

MORRIS: (Reading) Oppression makes a wise man mad. Your fathers were wise men. And if they did not go mad, they became restive under this treatment.

Z DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) With brave men, there's always a remedy for oppression.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) They succeeded, and today you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours, and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary.

A WATSON: (Reading) Fellow citizens, pardon me. Allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence?

MORRIS: (Reading) Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?

H WATSON: (Reading) I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common.

A WATSON: (Reading) The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.

MORRIS: (Reading) The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me.

H WATSON: (Reading) This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.

Z DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) You may rejoice. I must mourn.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) Fellow citizens, above your national tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions.

Z DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) Oh, 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.

Z DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) For it is not light that is needed, but fire.

H WATSON: (Reading) It is not the gentle shower, but thunder.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) We need the storm, the whirlwind and the earthquake.

A WATSON: (Reading) The feeling of the nation must be quickened.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) The conscience of the nation must be roused.

MORRIS: (Reading) The propriety of the nation must be startled.

H WATSON: (Reading) The hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed.

Z DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) And its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) What to the American slave is your Fourth 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.

A WATSON: (Reading) To him, your celebration is a sham.

MORRIS: (Reading) Your boasted liberty, an unholy license.

Z DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) Your national greatness, swelling vanity.

H WATSON: (Reading) Your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless.

MORRIS: (Reading) Your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence.

A WATSON: (Reading) Your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery.

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) Your prayers and hymns, your sermons and Thanksgivings...

MORRIS: (Reading) ...With all your religious parade and solemnity are to him...

Z DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) ...Mere bombast...

H WATSON: (Reading) ...Fraud...

MORRIS: (Reading) ...Deception...

A WATSON: (Reading) ...Impiety...

I DOUGLASS SKINNER: (Reading) ...And hypocrisy. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour. Allow me to say in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.


I DOUGLASS SKINNER: The Fourth of July still doesn't mean that much. We're still second-class citizens. I don't think it's hopeless.


I DOUGLASS SKINNER: Somebody once said that pessimism is a tool of white oppression, and I think that's true. I think, in many ways, we are still slaves to the notion that it will never get better. But I think that there is hope, and I think it's important that we celebrate Black joy and Black life and we remember that change is possible, change is probable, and that there's hope.


SHAPIRO: That was Isidore Douglass Skinner.

CHANG: You also heard Alexa Anne Watson, Haley Rose Watson, Zoe Douglass Skinner and Douglass Washington Morris II, all of them descendants of Frederick Douglass, reading his speech, "What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?"

SHAPIRO: You can watch a video of that reading and more of their reflections at

(SOUNDBITE OF OSCAR PETERSON'S "HYMN TO FREEDOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.