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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Words of American slave ring true today

October 22, 2018 - 12:24 PM



I’ve probably written more than 100 speeches over the years…mostly for corporate CEOs and occasionally a politician. It is a challenging style of writing…and admittedly a somewhat odd way to make a living. I can assure you that bad speech writers - like dogs that chase cars - don’t last very long. Anyway, I recognize a well-written speech when I see it based on my own experience.

Of course, there are speeches…and then there are speeches. I’d like to point out one in particular that is brilliant. Indeed, everyone who believes in democracy should read it. The speech was written and delivered on July 5, 1852 by Frederick Douglass. Something written that long ago that still rings true…is worth reading.

It helps to have a sense of history…where Douglass came from and what he endured before becoming one of America’s first civil rights leaders. He was born into slavery about 1818…he never knew his actual birthdate…a common occurrence among slaves. Even so, before turning 30 years old, he would become a vocal abolitionist, as well as a civil and women’s rights activist…a man well ahead of his time.

His mother was a Native American, and his father was of African and European descent. He took the name Douglass after he escaped slavery in Maryland…and was known previously by his mother’s maiden name…Bailey.

As an infant, he was separated from his mother, living for a short time with his maternal grandmother. By age six, he was taken from her and worked on the Wye House Plantation…one of the largest in Maryland.

A few years later, Bailey - in a common practice - was “given” to Lucretia Auld, and he was sent to work for her husband Thomas’ brother, Hugh, in Baltimore. There, Hugh’s wife, Sophia, taught him the alphabet…and he then taught himself to read and write, mostly using the Bible.

When he was loaned to another plantation owner when he was 15 years old, he began teaching other slaves to read and write.

Frederick Douglass circa 1879
Frederick Douglass circa 1879

Slave owners feared educated slaves, and when word spread that Bailey was teaching other slaves, Thomas Auld took Bailey back and then sent him to Edward Covey, a farmer who was particularly brutal to slaves. Covey tried to break his spirit with regular beatings, but was unsuccessful.

Bailey tried to escape several times during the next four years, and by the time he was 20 he hopped a train, heading north through Delaware - another slave state - and on to New York, where he was aided by abolitionist David Ruggles. Bailey was a free man, and arranged for Anna Murray - a free black woman he met as a teenager in Baltimore - to come north and they were married that year. They eventually had five children.

They moved to Massachusetts a year after being married and met a couple named Nathan and Mary Johnson…both born free persons of colour. They became friends and suggested to the Bailey’s the name Douglass, a character in a Sir Walter Scott poem, “The Lady of the Lake.”

So, with that preamble, let’s consider one of his many speeches…the one given on Monday, July 5, 1852, to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, NY, celebrating America’s Independence Day. It was titled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Douglass spoke eloquently that day…of the frustration of more than three million enslaved human beings over the chasm between the promise and the reality of America. The speech lasted about an hour. He spoke about how - just 76 years before - the fathers of those listening to him were subjects of the British Crown. He correlated the struggles of slaves with the struggles of the Colonists.

I’m not going to quote extensively here, but I encourage you to Google the speech, and then read it in its entirety. Douglass actually was a patriot…he loved America or at least what America claimed to stand for. I will quote one brief passage that captures the anguish of so many people treated as property rather than human beings.

“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 truth is, America has never fully dealt with the reality of slavery. It shouldn’t be about guilt. It should be about fairness…doing the right thing…true equality in education, housing, economic opportunity.

As you read the full speech Douglas gave on that day more than 166 years ago, perhaps you’ll see the shocking gap in America even today between the grand and glorious words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the fact America jails more of its own citizens than any other country.

You should note that the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - passed in 1870 - stated simply, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Even as you read this, people in America - Republicans - in Georgia, Florida, North Dakota, Texas and North Carolina, among other states, are suppressing the vote of African-Americans and Native Americans in the upcoming mid-term elections.

Frederick Douglass knew more than a century and a half ago that the struggle to close the gap between America’s dream and reality would last well beyond his time on Earth. His spirit lives on…and despite efforts of far too many today - who apparently would have lived comfortably in the 1800s - equality remains an American goal.

Read “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”…all of it…and maybe you can understand just a little better why some Americans resent being lesser Americans based on skin colour…even today.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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