One hundred and fifty nine years ago, Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech to commemorate the birth of what was then a very young nation. He challenged his listeners to consider the obvious hypocrisy of a nation founded on liberty, but built on the stolen labor of enslaved Africans with the question, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” Early in the speech he makes the point that this holiday does not embrace the lived experience of people like himself:
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. 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. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.
Reading the new book by scholar and prophet Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness got me wondering what Douglass would say today about the Fourth of July. In the book, Alexander advances a compelling thesis that the mass incarceration of the black, the brown, and the red in America constitutes the latest version of an ever-mutating system of racialized social control, perpetuating a racial caste system; the new Jim Crow.
I suspect that Douglass would say what he said over a century and a half ago, “Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.”
I think he would challenge us to ponder the paradox of a nation founded on liberty, but which condemns men and women to civic death and internal exile on a daily basis once they are labeled felons. I think he would ask us to consider the question, “What to a felon is the Fourth of July?” What does this holiday mean for those who cannot vote, cannot work, cannot find a place to live, cannot access public assistance? What does this holiday mean for the families whose loved ones cycle in and out prison year after year and who face eviction if they offer their husband, brother, uncle a place to sleep? What does it mean for communities devastated by a misguided and cynical drug war with a near insatiable appetite for the black, the brown and the red? A war that is more about preserving the power of politicians than public safety.
I also think that as he did in his day, he would call out faith communities on their complicity in this injustice. Today he would demand to know where the mosques, temples, Baha’i Centers, and churches are in addressing what is among the most urgent civil rights issues of the early 21st century. Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith and a contemporary of Frederick Douglass put it this way, “If ye stay not the hand of the oppressor, if ye fail to safeguard the rights of the downtrodden, what right have ye then to vaunt yourselves among men? What is it of which ye can rightly boast?”
Michelle Alexander argues that nothing short of a massive social movement can dismantle the new Jim Crow. Just as they did during efforts to defeat earlier versions of racial caste in America, faith communities must contribute prophetic vision, prophetic voices, and what Ghandi referred to as “soul force” to this new struggle. I’ll close with the words of Frederick Douglass, still poignant after all these years,
“THAT HOUR WILL, COME, to each, to all,
And from his prison-house, the thrall
Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive-
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,