This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
This week the nation celebrated its collective birth as an international symbol of freedom, independence and raw grit. The polarizing and depressing circumstances of our current republic have created an internet full of articles of alarm, anxiety and downright panic. Yet our nation has been through worse. For example, we once sponsored legal slavery. Nothing about unfair taxes or narcissistic British masters could ever compare to our own national crimes.
A little heavy? Not when compared to one of the greatest Fourth of July speeches ever – a speech that should be in every high school's curriculum alongside the Declaration of Independence and Gettysburg Address.
The speech is Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?"
Douglass, who grew up as a slave in Maryland, taught himself to read and escaped to New York. He gave this speech in 1852 to a group of New York abolitionists. It is a 10,381-word treatise that demonstrates humility and strength in the face of unrelenting personal abuse.
Concerning the national holiday, Douglass admonished, "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."
Was this week's celebration any more noble than our celebrations from that abominable age? Isn't our "rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence" still only enjoyed by some?
Did Weldon Angelos suffer justice when we sentenced him to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana three times?
Is justice done by a prosecutor's policy of refusing plea deals when a defendant opts for a rightful preliminary hearing? Or overcharging 86 felonies for the same basic offense?
How does a child stuck in intergenerational poverty enjoy the liberty of American education and upward mobility? More than 57,000 children in Utah suffer this scourge.
How does a single mom, drowning in debt for basic food, rent and childcare, enjoy prosperity in a system she is never able to beat, in a hole she can never dig herself out of? In 2015, the majority of black children lived with a single parent. Married mothers earn four times more than single mothers.
And how can we be truly independent when countless rules and regulations dictate our every move, administered by bureaucrats and enforced by government agents with no qualms about lying to those they are meant to protect? How many laws do we each break each day?
In a fiery climax, Douglass preached, "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. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."
I don't mean to equate slavery with our current social injustices. I argue that we survived earlier failings, and can do so again.
Like Douglass, I do not despair. The genius of the American spirit is too strong, too moral, too good to falter for too long. And while we are simple and base, selfish and vain, our weaknesses can eventually be our strengths. If we stay vigilant. And humble. And seek to hear above the partisan noise that lacks accountability, charity and compromise.
As the Declaration of Independence reminds us, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."