As I prepare for this Independence Day I resort to what has become a ritual – reading Frederick Douglass’ powerful “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech the great freedom fighter delivered during a celebration of the nation’s independence. When I first read this speech as a fourth grader it served as a moment of enlightenment for me as I witnessed the turmoil of the 1960s unfold on television. The words of the speech challenged me to think about my own purpose in life and my obligation to commit to the fight for freedom for Black Americans that Douglass and others before and after waged. Today, his words seem more poignant, truer and more urgent than at any time in my life; including the civil rights struggle of the 1960s to defeat Jim Crow.
This year is an important time marker as it is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the true starting point of Black citizenship in America. What many fail to recognize is that when President Lyndon Johnson affixed his signature to the Civil Rights Act it was truly the point of demarcation for the Second Reconstruction, as significant albeit equally brief as the First Reconstruction after the Civil War. Blacks have only had 50 years of an American experience that somewhat mimics the liberties enjoyed by whites from the outset of the founding of the Republic. It is why our progress, despite the ugly reality of our present, is all the more impressive against the backdrop of what preceded 1964.
What I have spent many years contemplating every Independence Day is the struggle and level of commitment of Black people, the famous and those whose names we will never know, to secure the rights our nation boldly proclaims is the birthright of all Americans but somehow could not extend to us absent the shedding of our blood. The sacrifice and boldness of generations of Blacks must be remembered and honored today as you entertain friends in your backyard, watch parades and take in the symbolism of patriotism, and watch fireworks displays in awe. The only reason this nation can remotely claim Independence Day is because of the Black struggle to make it the nation our founding documents purport is our manifest destiny. In many ways we are still struggling to answer the question Frederick Douglass raised.
Five decades after young people, Black and white, boarded buses to cross the Mason Dixon line to take on a southern insurgency rooted in the Civil War, we no longer have Freedom Riders but too many Black people catching a free ride to freedom. What distinguished our greatest generation was the fairly common understanding that sacrifice and struggle were the price we had to pay to gain our freedom. The roll call of courageous Black freedom fighters suggests that they put their lives as a secondary consideration to uplifting the race. Today, we are faced with the tragedy of too many of us hitching a free ride, making excuses for our non-engagement and signing off on future generations of Blacks existing as second class citizens or wards of the state. Whatever symbolic success we achieved in the short period from 1964 until the Bakke decision in 1978 has been wiped away by decades of atrophy as our children are denied a quality education, income inequality deepens, mass incarceration eviscerates Black males and now entangles Black females, and violence takes on the eerie aura of genocide. The Black middle class is fleeting as its children will likely fare worse than their parents as several studies have indicated. Yet, there is a deadly civic detachment that has overtaken the Black community that we must confront if this day is to have any meaning at all for Black Americans.
We must confront the free rides too many of us are taking. We sit in homes framed by well-manicured lawns in suburban communities as our children are devoured by the indifference of apartheid like education in separate and unequal classrooms. In urban communities our children are murdered at such a rate that it deserves condemnation as an international human rights tragedy. Waves of Blacks have been incarcerated on suspect charges, had their most productive years taken away and return to communities isolated and spiritually defeated if not mentally broken. Black unemployment has taken on the characteristic of long-term joblessness and contributed to not only increased income inequality but a widening wealth gap that will never be closed. Our very existence is challenged on a daily basis by unwarranted police stops or security checks when attempting to do something as basic as shop. Yet, too many of us are silent, too many of us sit on the sidelines or are so protective of a “status” that means little in the face of our cultural death.
And too many of us are free riding, thinking there is not a cost to obtain freedom.
The excuses are many and all of them insufficient. Some of us claim we don’t fight because things will never change. If that were true you would not even be able to make that statement today. Then there are those of us who are so invested in the trivial, who can tell you every idiotic detail of a “reality TV” show or hip-hop beef, that they are oblivious to their own degradation. We suffer from a Black middle class preoccupied with material success and ego validation that we don’t see our own kids being crushed by the weight of racism in our society. Too many of us have 'arrived' and are still lost. Urban communities are abandoned, with Blacks left to fend for themselves against economic deprivation and violence as partisan politics has made us pawns in a political system that pays few dividends for our labor and loyalty, no matter the political party or symbolic ‘leader.’ We are in a deadly malaise, riding free and en route to our own demise.
If there is to be a future for Black Americans in this country we must answer Frederick Douglass’ question. For if this day is to have real meaning, we must again engage in the fight for freedom with the commitment, intensity and sacrifice that “brought us thus far on the way.”
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.