Ted Shaw, professor of law at UNC and director of UNC’s Center for Civil Rights, spoke at the event.
Shaw spoke about how Douglass’ speech provides a different narrative of America’s Independence Day from what many Americans might be used to.
“I first read this speech I think when I was a high school student, I was probably in 9th or 10th grade. It took hold of me from the first time I read it,” he said. “Part of the power in the speech is that Frederick Douglass begins the speech in a way that might lead those who were in attendance to think it was going to be a run-of-the-mill Fourth of July ‘I love America’ speech.”
In the speech, Douglass, who was born a slave, describes how the Fourth of July might mark independence for white Americans but not for slaves or other black Americans.
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” he said in the speech. “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.”
Douglass advocated for civil rights with his skills in writing and public speaking, Shaw said.
“His weapons were his pen and his words, and they were powerful weapons,” he said. “This speech is a testament to the power of those weapons.”
Douglass’ speech is unique in terms of its courage, said James Williams, Orange and Chatham counties public defender, who also spoke at the event.
“Somewhere in my education, I remember a Greek word called ‘parrhesia,’” Williams said. Parrhesia means speaking boldly or freely, he said.
“I think this speech is the essence of parrhesia because it’s this sort of courageous, bold speech that pulls no punches and just takes it to where it needs to go without concern for the consequences,” Williams said.
He said it is possible to appreciate America on the Fourth of July while still thinking critically about its flaws, and Douglass’ speech epitomizes this idea.
“That kind of America, love-it-or-leave-it patriotism ... that’s empty. It’s shallow. It doesn’t mean a whole lot,” he said.
Shaw said Douglass’ speech is relevant when discussing racial issues still being faced in the country today.
“When we antique that history, when we say that it was so long ago that it doesn’t have any relevance to the inequality we experience today — well, we’re fooling ourselves,” he said. “It is a day more than any other day when we are reminded of shameful iniquities and injustices that the United States is guilty of.”