Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
(CNN)Racial justice protests around the nation make this Fourth of July perhaps the most important in American history. Independence Day 2020 is imbued with new meaning about what it means to be an American, rooted in a collective effort to squarely confront the bitter and beautiful struggles that shape our profoundly historic present.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death have finally given millions of Americans renewed language to discuss the messy reality of a nation that remains in the grips of structural racism, white supremacy and a racial caste system that continues to ensure that Black babies, from birth to death, lead a life of greater risk and less prosperity than White ones.
Perhaps the biggest stride made since the protests erupted on May 26 is the fact that vast majorities are no longer conflating protest against injustice with disrespecting the flag. Black and White soccer players have kneeled together in anti-racist protest and the NFL has belatedly recognized Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest in support of Black humanity by proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees apologized to his teammates and Black America after claiming that kneeling players disrespected his ancestors who fought in wars. This kind of racially hazy nostalgia ignores both Black participation in the military and the racist reception veterans have received upon returning home from war. Public statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, along with donations and pledges of support for racial justice, has mainstreamed anti-racism on an unprecedented national scale.
This is especially significant because one of white supremacy’s most painful injuries remains questioning the loyalty and patriotism of Black Americans. Black folk have fought, even during antebellum slavery, in every war this country has ever participated in. Almost 200,000 black soldiers fought valiantly to preserve the Union during the Civil War and black soldiers served in World War I and II, only to return to a country where enemy combatants were accorded more respectful treatment than them.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave turned abolitionist, journalist and public intellectual, delivered the most deeply impassioned Fourth of July speech in American history in 1852, at Rochester, New York’s Corinthian Hall. He spoke on Monday, July 5 — a date which served as part of a long-standing tradition among Black New Yorkers. In choosing that Monday, Douglass also recognized that Independence Day still remained a day when Blacks were auctioned off for sale in the South. Douglass offered the definitive explanation for why African Americans refused to embrace celebrations of freedom amid their own bondage.
Douglass, anticipating our present debates over public symbols of American history, characterized George Washington’s legacy as a troubled one, “his monument built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men.” Douglass continued to the heart of the matter. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine,” observed Douglass. “You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Douglass mourned, like generations before and after him, the tragedy of a country whose national creed of freedom and liberty were in fact rooted in the bondage of Black souls and the exploitation of Black labor.
The tensions within a national holiday professing freedom by a country built on slavery remain with us today. The hope of this watershed moment in American history rests on the courage of ordinary Americans — whose demonstrations, protests, anger and empathy have created a generational opportunity to confront legacies of racism that touch every aspect of our society.
If Frederick Douglass rightfully asked the question, What to the slave was the Fourth of July?, then contemporary African Americans might similarly ask what does Independence Day mean to them against the backdrop of mass incarceration, racial segregation, mass unemployment, mass poverty and a Covid-19 pandemic that has disproportionately scarred the entire Black community.
Recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday (as many businesses and multiple states now do), supporting efforts to rid public landscapes of Confederate monuments, and treating the surge in anti-racism as a means of healing a history deeply rooted in white supremacy is a start. But not nearly enough.
July 4, 2020, will be commemorated this year against the backdrop of America’s Third Reconstruction, our latest effort to make Independence Day meaningful as a celebration of a republic no longer in the grips of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. This requires confronting the brutal history and contemporary evolution of white supremacy and the extraordinary ways the American, and not just the Confederate, flag has been wielded as a weapon against racial equality in this nation.
We live in a country that continues to dishonor the sacrifices made by African American soldiers and ordinary citizens who bled for democracy in international conflicts and on domestic home fronts that denied them citizenship and dignity. The mistreatment of black soldiers returning home from the First World War inspired W.E.B. Du Bois, the black scholar and civil rights leader who founded the NAACP, to proclaim that African Americans would finally achieve equal citizenship or “know the reason why.”
The “Double V” campaign engineered by African Americans during the Second World War sought a victory over global fascism and domestic racial segregation. Jim Crow proved too powerful for black members of the “Greatest Generation” who were routinely denied access to home loans and the full benefits of the GI Bill that created the white middle class. Black GIs also were beaten, brutalized and even blinded after returning home to a domestic political front that proved at times more dangerous than global combat.
Civil rights activism across the nation paralleled these efforts, with Black Americans leading a movement that aimed to reimagine democracy and, in so doing, transform the meaning of the Fourth of July. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which grew out of lunch counter sit-ins, further challenged the nation to build a new world together. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sketched out the expansive parameters of a bold new world free of anti-Black racism at the March on Washington in 1963.
July 4 represented a national celebration of “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence,” observed King, that reflected a “promissory note” to every American. King noted that Black Americans had historically received a “bad check,” yet refused to believe “that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” He closed this speech by arguing that when America at long last fulfilled its original promise, matched word on paper with public deeds in action, it would give new meaning to patriotic expressions of love of country.
So on this July 4, let us move into a more liberated future by embracing the American past holistically. America’s ultimate goal remains freedom. We must candidly admit that for the past 244 years we have failed to live up to our national creed written in documents the nation considers sacred.
Yet this Independence Day, amid a pandemic that mirrors a Biblical plague and mass protests calling for Americans to make Black dignity and citizenship the center of our democratic experiment, seems strangely hopeful. It feels as if by forging through the crucible of our bloodstained history and harrowing present, we have salvaged a tantalizing possibility of making good, for the first time, on the promise of American democracy. We must continue to confront the past in order to create a new future expansive enough to include us all.
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