Recalling Frederick Douglass in the Age of Obama

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On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass spoke to a majority white audience in Rochester, N.Y. The great orator and abolitionist had been asked to deliver an address commemorating the Declaration of Independence, following a formal reading of the document that day.

What followed was a fiery speech, considered by some to be Douglass’ greatest, titled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In it, he expressed the unique disconnect from the notion of American independence that he felt as a former slave, as well as his determination to achieve such freedom for African Americas in the United States.

Douglass’ words still resonate 157 years later. That much was proven during a recent reading of the speech that brought elected officials and citizens from across the state — including New Bedford, the site of Douglass’ former home — to Boston Common to consider the historical importance of the address in an America perhaps unimaginable to Douglass: one led by a black president.

“This event is a chance to talk about what Douglass’ July 5th speech means today, in a post-Obama world,” said David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, which sponsored the June 2 event with Community Change Inc. and Mass Humanities.

The reading continued a recent increase of attention on Douglass in the Commonwealth. Back in February, Gov. Deval Patrick issued a proclamation establishing in Massachusetts days to honor both Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, who were longtime friends and leaders in the abolition and women’s suffrage movements.

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