Frederick Douglass' "The Meaning of July the Fourth for the Negro," read by James Earl Jones

One of Frederick Douglass's most famous speeches was his 1852 "The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro."



In it, Douglass exhorts his listeners to consider the American revolutionary fight for freedom and independence and to compare it to the struggle to end slavery and racism, and to confront the price that people of African descent paid for America's prosperity, and how little they benefited from it. It is a powerful, angry, vital speech.

This reading of the speech, by James Earl Jones, is part of Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History of the United States project, which is also available on CD with the same speech being read by Danny Glover (here's a video of Glover's reading).


What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a 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 denunciation 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 that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.


"What to the Slave is 4th of July?": James Earl Jones Reads Frederick Douglass' Historic Speech
[Democracy Now!]