Independence can mean many things

Published 3:39pm Tuesday, July 8, 2014

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.

These are the beginning words of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. They are so sweeping. They are so lifting. They are so beautiful. They are so powerful. But yet they were so hollow for some people.

These, along with other words, were officially adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. It became the Declaration of Independence and was officially signed on July 4, 1776. It represented the highest ideals of mankind. However, for some, these great words rang hollow.

When we hear these sweeping, lifting, beautiful and powerful words, we usually forget that “all men” did not really mean “all men.” All men did not include Black men (or any women) whether in or out of slavery. In fact, most members of the Second Continental Congress were slave holders. Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave holder of note. And these men treated their slaves far worse than the king of Great Britain treated the colonists, forcing rebellion and eventually revolution.

The sweeping language of the Declaration of Independence simply did not include Black people.

The ringing words, all men created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, the right to Life Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness just did not apply to Black people. To the creators of the Declaration of Independence, Black people were not people. Otherwise, they would have had a clear right to rebel themselves.

Frederick Douglass spoke to this terrible contrast some 76 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence when he was asked to speak at an Independence Day Celebration. Here are several segments of his speech:

“Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us? Am I therefore called upon to bring our humble offering to the National Altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to 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.

“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.

“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 injustices 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 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 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.”

We forget that the Declaration of Independence with its majestic sweeping language silently excluded so many based on the color of their skins. We forget that Independence Day followed suit, excluding so many. Frederick Douglass did not forget.

Some celebrate January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. However, it declared free only those who lived in states then in rebellion. Of course, the Union had no power to enforce its declarations of those in rebellion. It left enslaved those who resided in states aligned with the Union. It was a war measure with no legal standing after the war ended.

Others celebrate Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) when the last enslaved people in Texas and other states in rebellion were officially declared free. Many, however, had freed themselves with their feet by running away from enslavement. In addition, many were still enslaved in the states that stood with the Union.

The Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed on July 4, 1776. It was nearly 90 years later, on December 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in these United States. It was the 13th Amendment, adopted after the bloodiest war in U.S. history that finally produced absolute independence for all Black people in these United States of America. But few even know this date of independence.

It is so easy to forget that our celebrations may hold the opposite meaning for others. We usually celebrate victories. That means some won and some lost. Those who lost or were just left out do not see any reasons to celebrate with us.

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