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A Day for Rejoicing -- and Vigilance

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day is as good a time as any to do a little stock-taking on the cause of liberty in America. After all, the road from 1776 to 2009 has been lined with so many stumbling blocks and detours.

This much can be said: Today's celebration in the nation's capital is a far cry from the one seen in 1952 through the eyes of this then-9-year-old boy.

Under liberty's banner, people looking like me were governed by three white presidentially appointed commissioners, a white school superintendent, white police and fire chiefs, white judges, and white committee chairmen in Congress who gave the commissioners their marching orders.

Independence Day '52 found black Washingtonians living under several restrictions: Thou shall not attend school with white children or go to the same movie theaters, restaurants or swimming pools attended by white people or sit at downtown drugstore lunch counters. I recall having to stand at the end of the counter at the drugstore (now gone) at the southwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 25th Street NW, waiting to be recognized by the clerk.

That was nearly 100 years to the day since Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave and black abolitionist, told an Independence Day audience in Rochester, N.Y., that he had found the promise of 1776 to be wanting.

With nearly 4 million men, women and children still being kept as slaves, Douglass told the gathering: "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn."

Douglass, who later served as a D.C. legislator and as the District's recorder of deeds, and who lived out his days in his adopted home in Anacostia, wouldn't be in mourning today.

He would be thrilled that Independence Day 2009 finds a man of color in the White House, that the first lady of the United States and the two children playing on the White House lawn share the hue of people once owned by slaveholders.

Douglass, today, would praise, not mourn, a nation that has black mayors, governors and members of Congress.

But Douglass, a keen student of American history and a mighty warrior of freedom's struggles, might also offer a word of caution.

He might remind us that he, too, experienced praiseworthy American birthdays. By the Fourth of July, 1877, 12 years after the end of the Civil War and 25 years after he excoriated the nation for barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, the injustice and cruelty of slavery had been abolished.

Douglass might point out that on that day, more than 1,500 African Americans were holding federal, state and local offices in states of the Old Confederacy and that 17 black members of Congress had been elected from Reconstruction states between 1870 and 1877.

Douglass might say that just as we are uplifted today by 20th-century civil rights victories won in the Supreme Court and Congress, a host of post-Civil War reforms of his day also dramatically transformed the national conduct that he condemned in 1852.

Douglass might point with pride to the adoption of the 13th , 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the passage of civil rights laws and the creation of a federal office to provide freed slaves with services and education.

And he might be inclined to remind us that, just as we are celebrating today's freedoms, joyous blacks also raised their voices in 1877 Independence Day speeches, that smiling black faces lined parade routes, that African Americans were part of the national jubilee.

But Douglass the realist might also want us to remember that by Independence Day 1884, nearly 20 years after the Civil War, the new democratic order ushered in by Reconstruction was on its way out.

He might call to our attention how civil rights were cynically weakened by a conservative Supreme Court, how the removal of federal protection for freed blacks in the South freed white supremacists to recapture state and local governments, impose voting barriers and roll back civil rights.

He might have a word or two to say about the need to stay vigilant, that there is no such thing as a permanent victory and that the resistance never gives up.

Frederick Douglass said, "No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thoughts, feeling and actions of others."

Watch the Roberts Supreme Court, he might warn us. Watch what happens to voting and hiring practices in America now that the court's conservative majority is watering down hard-won civil rights legislative gains -- just as a conservative Supreme Court did toward the end of the 19th century.

Celebrate the Fourth of July 2009, Douglass might tell us. But for goodness sake, he might warn, keep watch.

kingc@washpost.com

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