Actor James Earl Jones performed a reading of Frederick Douglass’s iconic 1852 speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” in a video posted online by Democracy Now! in honor of Independence Day.
Jones, perhaps best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, gave the reading during a performance of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States project. He was introduced by Zinn before the reading.
Douglass’s speech — delivered on July 5, 1852 at a meeting of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society — detailed the abolitionist’s struggle to reconcile America’s independence with the slavery of a great many of its people.
The speech contained what later became several iconic passages, including arguably its most famous: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim.”
Jones continues the reading in his unmistakable voice:
“To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”
Watch excerpts from Jones’ speech in the video above. The full text of Frederick Douglass’s speech can be found here.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum