The influence of Frederick Douglass today

Published: 7/9/2021 10:32:12 AM It was gratifying to see a story about Sunday’s Reading Frederick Douglass Together event on the fro...

Published: 7/9/2021 10:32:12 AM

It was gratifying to see a story about Sunday’s Reading Frederick Douglass Together event on the front page of the Gazette (“‘What have I … to do with your national independence?’” July 5) and excerpts from Douglass’s 1852 speech on the editorial page.

When South Congregational Church of Amherst considered applying for a Mass Humanities grant to fund a reading of “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” we envisioned a smallish event that would engage church members involved in racial justice discussions and civic initiatives with other folks from the community who are concerned about these issues.

We never dreamed that it would grow as large as it did, with 43 readers from a cross-section of Amherst and beyond and an audience of 200, according to the Gazette. We are indebted not only to Mass Humanities but also to the Interfaith Opportunities Network, which promoted the event to its member congregations, many of which were represented in the roster of readers. Special thanks are also due to the Amherst Area Gospel Choir, which led off the event with a message of resilience and love, and to UMass Afro-American Studies Professor Amilcar Shabazz, who provided historical context for the speech and facilitated a thought-provoking discussion about its relevance today.

The readers ranged in age from 7 to 70-plus; some read portions of the speech in Spanish, and one in Mfantse, a language of Ghana. They included students, teachers, public officials, activists, and many others who care about social justice. The passion with which they spoke Douglass’s words was moving and inspiring.

It is hard to hear much of what Douglass has to say (“There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”) because, as many participants at the reading pointed out, so much of the speech is still applicable today.

There is much to honor on the Fourth of July — as Douglass himself acknowledges — but he reminds us of the hard work we still must do in facing the injustices of our past and addressing the inequities of our present. Although 169 years have passed since he gave the speech, we might still agree with Douglass that we “are, even now, only in the beginning of [our] national career, still lingering in the period of childhood,” at least in terms of fulfilling the promises of the Declaration of Independence. He finds hope in that thought, “and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon.”

The dark clouds over Amherst gave way to sunshine on July 4. May it be so in our national climate.

Bruce M. Penniman, of Amherst, is a member of the Church Council at South Church Amherst and of the planning committee for Reading Frederick Douglass Together.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The influence of Frederick Douglass today
The influence of Frederick Douglass today
Newsrust - US Top News
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