This year, Carrboro held its Fourth of July celebrations and traditions virtually, including the annual reading of Frederick Douglass' essay, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
At noon on July 4, the Town of Carrboro released the video reading of the essay on its YouTube channel. The video included the mayor’s introduction, a speech by keynote speaker Anita Earls, associate justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and community members coming together to read Douglass’ famous work.
Mayor Lydia Lavelle started off the annual reading in front of Carrboro Town Hall, where the July Fourth festivities are normally held.
“Now when I first became mayor, I guess seven years ago, James Williams, our then-Orange County public defender, approached me and the Town with this idea,” Lavelle said. “We started doing the reading that same year.”
The Carrboro mayor said under normal circumstances, hundreds of residents attend this event, making it one of the most highly attended events for the Town.
After the mayor’s introduction, Lavelle introduced Earls, who serves as co-chairperson on Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice. Earls’ remarks included a presentation with images from the recent Black Lives Matter protests occurring across the nation.
“Before this moment of America’s reckoning with race, the warm, sweet air was already charged,” Earls said. “A killer virus had ripped through Black communities; bullets too.”
Earls said that in Black communities and across the United States, George Floyd’s killing has sparked a movement unlike any other.
“His death during the last light of Memorial Day has unleashed one of the most explosive trials of American racism in modern times,” Earls said.
James Williams, the former chief public defender for Orange and Chatham counties from 1990 to 2017, was also a part of the community reading of the speech.
He said when he was at the previous year’s festivities, he knew it would be best to have Justice Earls as the keynote speaker in 2020.
“I knew then that 2020 would be the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment,” Williams said. “I also knew that 2020 would be the 55th year anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. There is no one in the entirety of the state of North Carolina that has done more to ensure the ballot for Black people and for others than Justice Anita Earls.”
Williams said Frederick Douglass’ words, delivered in Rochester, New York, in 1852, are still meaningful hundreds of years later. Williams recapped the parallels between Douglass’ words with mass incarceration of people of color, voter suppression, racial profiling and more.
“When we look at what is happening today, when you think about Ahmaud Arbery and how he was tracked down and trapped like hunters out hunting deer, we’re still dealing with these very issues today,” Williams said.
Williams ended his remarks by quoting Douglass himself.
“Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names,” he recited. “It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name. You and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume.”
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