I have always considered the 4th of July as one of our truly American holidays.
For as long as I can remember, we celebrated with cookouts, fireworks and a grand display of our red, white and blue.
As a Black kid growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I knew my parents worked hard to pursue the American Dream. They moved from the projects of West Philly to the manicured lawns of the suburbs where Independence Day was a big deal. Since it was a big deal for my parents, it was a big deal for my siblings and me. I remember erecting the flag and even dressing up in matching patriotic outfits (I’ve got the shameful Polaroids to prove it).
It wasn’t until I was an adult when I began to view these traditions a lot differently. I’ve been stopped at gunpoint by officers who swore to serve and protect me. I’ve endured racial slurs by individuals who felt it was their freedom to demean me. I’ve had my house “egged” by those who may have disagreed with the campaign lawn signs I’ve erected – or simply by my very presence in the neighborhood where I’m one of only a handful of Blacks.
So, I find it significant that Independence Day this year is being observed against the backdrop of the U.S. Supreme Court setting back the rights of women for generations. While media attention appropriately has focused on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, it’s simply the latest proof that freedom is rarely completely free.
More than 150 years ago, Frederick Douglass, as one of our nation’s greatest orators, posed the question to his all-white audience, “What To The Slave is the Fourth of July?” The year was 1852. The Civil War had yet to be fought, and the Emancipation Proclamation was not to be issued until more than 10 years later. Many in the crowd held slaves, and some even thought Douglass was more of an oddity than the gifted speaker/activist that history knows him to be.
Regardless of what those in the packed hall thought of Douglass, he didn’t hold back what he knew to be true in his perspective of Independence Day.
“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?” Douglass wrote. “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and 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?”
It was, of course, a rhetorical question that Douglass was quick to answer:
“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. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
Now, here we are more than 100 years later, and the symbols of freedom still evoke mixed emotions for many of us. While I proudly display the stars and stripes this time every year, I’ve also seen the flag used by others as a weapon — literally and figuratively — to restrict, rather than embolden freedom. Regardless of the symbolism, freedom has always been something that has been fought for—typically by those who have less freedom against those who have more.
Which brings us back to Independence Day, Frederick Douglass and the fight that matters. When Douglass delivered his oration, it wasn’t just a fiery speech to agitate those gathered. It was borne from his lived experience of having escaped slavery, taught himself to read and become the statesman who would play a pivotal role in abolishing the practice of slavery that once held him captive.
For far too many, the chains that bind us may be harder to detect, but their grip is real:
- Redlining and predatory loan practices that hold folks back from achieving generational wealth.
- Failing schools that lead to poor job prospects, bad life choices and ultimately fuel for the school-to-prison pipeline.
- Health inequities that continue to claim Black and brown lives every minute of every day.
So, the struggle continues because it has to. How we live into our freedom determines how much we’re willing to fight for it. For those with the power to grant those freedoms, the battle will be an ongoing one.
Douglass knew this when he wrote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are (those) who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Let the roar of independence continue to drive us ever forward.
David W. Brown
David W. Brown has owned or managed five advertising/public relations firms throughout his 40+ career in Philadelphia. His most successful venture was BrownPartners, – which operated from 2002 – 2011 – and became one of the most decorated minority-owned ad agencies in the history of Philadelphia’s advertising industry. The company won almost every award in the field including three Pepperpots from the Philadelphia Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA); a Gold Addy from the Philadelphia Advertising Club; and a Mosaic Award from the American Advertising Federation. Brown has the distinction of being the only person to have served over his career as both the President of the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Philadelphia chapter and the Philadelphia Advertising Club. He is also the only living African American inducted into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association (PPRA) Hall of Fame. With the Ad Club’s Movers and Shakers Pinnacle Award, Brown is the only African American to be selected for Hall of Fame honors by both Philadelphia’s largest advertising and public relations organizations. In 2016, he was recipient of PRSA’s National David Ferguson Award for Outstanding Contributions Education and is the first African American to be so honored. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Ofield Dukes Educator Award conferred by the National Black Public Relations Society (NBPRS) recognizing the best African Americans in the public relations industry that are making positive contributions in the community. It was named after the legendary African American practitioner who worked with music icon Stevie Wonder to make Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Professor Brown is the first Philadelphia practitioner to be selected. He serves as Founder/Managing Director of CommonSoul Communications – a non-profit that provides strategic marketing services to other mission-focused organizations. He was named a “Champion of Change” by the Obama Administration for his communications work around empowering non-profits to make a difference in the communities they serve. In 2018, Brown was recognized for his service to the community in being selected for the Harris Wofford Active Citizenship Award – given to one Philadelphian or organization a year by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service Committee which operates the largest single day of service in the country. Brown is the Diversity Advisor to the Office of the Dean at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he has pursued level work in the PhD Media and Communication program. An ordained Reverend in the United Methodist Church, Brown is also a frequent contributor to the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER and WHYY in which he has been featured extensively on a range of urban issues.