Sunday, July 4, 2010

Frank Rich on July 4, Race, and Thurgood Marshall

In today's New York Times, columnist Frank Rich reminds us that while all (wo)men are created equal, "slavery, America’s original sin of inequality, was left unaddressed in the Declaration of Independence signed 234 years ago today." The full column is here.

It's worth remembering that July 4 has not always been a day of celebration for African Americans. On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech entitled, "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?" He addressed his white audience as "you" rather than "we." He spoke of "your fathers" and "your freedom." Then he told his listeners: "The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

Yet freed slaves reclaimed the Fourth of July just as abolitionists like Douglass had reclaimed the Declaration of Independence for its ideals of universal equality. In the immediate post-Civil War period, African Americans launched large public celebrations not only of Juneteenth (June 19), the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but Independence Day on July 4. Fitzhugh Brundage, in The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory, quotes the Atlanta Constitution's complaint that "Darktown has a sort of idea that the Fourth of July belongs to it [because] . . . every man, woman, and pickaninny believes the abolition of slavery and the Fourth of July are in some way mixed up." Blacks in Nashville in 1868 demanded integration of the streetcars on the Fourth of July.

Rich's column this July 4 reminds us what a travesty it is that Republican Senators used Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings as an excuse to trash the memory of Justice Thurgood Marshall, a genuine American hero, as an "activist judge." Unlike Frederick Douglass, who despite his bitter speech on July 5 insisted that the 1787 Constitution was a "liberty Constitution," Justice Marshall recognized what most historians have concluded, that the Constitution of 1787 authorized and supported slavery. Yet Marshall, in a moving speech at the Bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987, "commemorate[d] the suffering, struggle, and sacrifice that has triumphed over much of what was wrong with the original document, and observe the anniversary with hopes not realized and promises not fulfilled. I plan to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution as a living document, including the Bill of Rights and the other amendments protecting individual freedoms and human rights."

On this July 4, I'll be commemorating Thurgood Marshall and the ongoing struggle of which he was a part.