On America’s most political holiday, clashing visions are nothing new

Why We Wrote This

Historically, the Fourth of July has been as much about toppling statues as about grilling hot dogs, as presidents and various groups have used the holiday to advance different views of American citizenship.

Mallory Noe-Payne/Reuters
Fireworks explode over the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia on June 19, 2020. during an event to mark Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in Texas, two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves elsewhere in the United States. Virginia's governor has announced that the statue will be removed.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 8 Min. )

A holiday rooted in the celebration of American freedom and unity is today producing sharply divergent scenes. Even as President Donald Trump celebrates with a fireworks extravaganza at Mount Rushmore and a speech from the White House, Black Lives Matter protests are continuing in U.S. cities, and small-town parades and celebrations across the country have been canceled due to the pandemic. 

Yet the Fourth has not always been a relaxed entrance to high summer, a time of hot dogs, bottle rockets, and all things red, white, and blue. At various points in history, it has been a day for divisive political expression. 

The holiday shows how Black and white Americans, immigrants and the native-born, have over decades battled over the meaning of freedom and to whom it applies.

“Freedom is never given; it’s always demanded,” says novelist Tina McElroy Ansa of St. Simons Island, Georgia, talking about this particular moment in American race relations. “We are not asking the government for something. We are moving ahead and changing and improving and getting glitches out.”

A fireworks extravaganza at Mount Rushmore. Continued Black Lives Matter protests in U.S. cities. 

A “Salute to America” featuring music and a presidential speech from the White House. Canceled small town parades across the country – and a plea from Washington, D.C.’s mayor for city residents to stay safe by just staying home.

Welcome to the fractured landscape of 2020’s July Fourth holiday weekend. A holiday rooted in the celebration of American freedom and unity is today producing clashing images of differences over the dangers of the coronavirus, the nation’s continuing struggle for racial equality, and the political fissures those battles reveal.

But is that kind of dissonance at the heart of the Fourth’s true purpose? It is, after all, arguably the most political of U.S. holidays. It commemorates a political act – the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At its beginning in 1776, New York City residents tore down an equestrian statue of King George III and hacked it to pieces.

At various points in history, the Fourth has been a day for divisive political expression. It has not always been a relaxed entrance to high summer, a time of hot dogs, bottle rockets, and all things red, white, and blue.

The holiday shows how Black and white Americans, immigrants and the native-born, have over decades battled over the meaning of freedom and to whom it applies, says Blain Roberts, a history professor at California State University, Fresno, and co-author of “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy.”

“In that way, the Fourth of July is really a window into that long political struggle about what it means to be an American,” Dr. Roberts says.

“What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

In the sweep of national history, many Black Americans have had different attitudes toward the Fourth of July than their white counterparts.

“To be clear, Fourth of July means different things to different people, and so does ‘Americanness’ depending on the color one ‘wears’,” says Soji Akomolafe, chair of political science at Norfolk State University, an HBCU (historically black college or university).

When white America gained independence in 1776, Black America remained persona non grata, Dr. Akomolafe says.

Before the Civil War, the basic reason for this split was obvious: the glaring hypocrisy between the Declaration’s words “all men are created equal” and the reality of the existence of slavery.

This was eloquently expressed in Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 address to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York. Speaking, pointedly, on July 5, Douglass asked, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and answered: “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

What Douglass was trying to do in his speech was point out that the Fourth isn’t just a celebration of American food and fireworks and freedom, says Keidrick Roy, a doctoral candidate in American literature and intellectual history at Harvard University.

“For Douglass, the Fourth of July is a time for us to reflect, and to be critical about ourselves and how we reflect on our institutions that govern us,” says Mr. Roy.

Douglass points out the ideals of the Declaration and the Constitution are things to which we should aspire, Mr. Roy adds.

“And what we see now in America conflicts with those ideals. So we need to endeavor to reconcile that contradiction,” he says.

Elizabeth Johnson Rice was a civil rights activist starting in her college days, when she was a member of the Richmond 34 – a group of students who sat-in at an all-white lunch counter in Richmond in 1960. They were one of the first mass arrests of the civil rights era and helped lead to the city’s desegregation.

“The founding fathers at the time [of the Declaration of Independence] really weren’t thinking about me,” she says.

“They were looking at us like chattel. They weren’t looking at us like human beings when this whole thing was drafted,” she adds.

Remembering the Fourth only in the red-white-and-blue imagery of tricorn hats and bewigged signers of the Declaration focuses too little on the contributions of Black Americans, who weren’t treated equally at the time yet whose labor still was a backbone of the country’s growth, says Ms. Johnson Rice.

Ironically, there was a short period in U.S. history when, in the South in particular, the Fourth of July was a true Black holiday. 

The Civil War’s outcome flipped attitudes around. Defeated white Confederates did not want to celebrate the Union. Meanwhile, African Americans embraced it as a symbol of the new order.

They gathered in small towns and big cities to picnic, hear orators read the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence, and see fireworks, says Ethan Kytle, a California State University, Fresno, historian and co-author with spouse Dr. Roberts of “Denmark Vesey’s Garden,” which recounts some of these celebrations.

The most elaborate took place in Charleston, South Carolina. Black militia units with names like the “Douglass Light Infantry” marched through the streets of a city known as the capital of Southern slavery. They ended at White Point Garden, a park at the base of the Charleston peninsula.

“African Americans felt for the first time that it was a holiday that included them,” says Dr. Kytle.

But white Southerners resented the celebrations. Beginning in the 1880s they pushed back, reclaiming local political power as Reconstruction waned, and then passing ordinances restricting the Black gatherings. Eventually Southern whites stripped Black Americans of citizenship in all but name.

By the turn of the century, Fourth of July celebrations in the South were white affairs that would pair renditions of “Dixie” with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In the Jim Crow era, cities erected many memorials to Confederate soldiers – the same memorials that protesters are toppling today.

“It’s not that Black people aren’t patriotic. They have a different sense and understanding of what that means and how we want to express and celebrate that,” says Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a historian at The Ohio State University and author of “Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt.” “Here’s the thing. Black people have a blood investment in the nation, in the soil, in the land. People recognize that, ‘This is my country,’ but what does it mean to not be a full citizen in this country? That limits the real joyousness of the Fourth of July.”

Presidents and symbolism

U.S. presidents have long used July Fourth as a means to promote their particular visions of what being an American means.

In 1964, for instance, Lyndon Baines Johnson pointedly signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, the actual date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

“One hundred eighty-eight years ago this week, a small band of valiant men began a struggle for freedom,” President Johnson said in a nationally-televised speech from the White House. “Yet those who founded America knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.” 

President Lyndon B. Johnson reaches to shake hands with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after presenting the civil rights leader with one of the 72 pens used to sign the Civil Rights Act in Washington on July 2, 1964. Surrounding the president, from left, are, Rep. Roland Libonati, D-Ill., Rep. Peter Rodino, D-N.J., Dr. King, Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y., and behind Celler is Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League.

Eight years later, with the country riven by protests against the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and conservative supporters organized a giant “Honor America Day” for July Fourth on the Washington Mall. Evangelist Billy Graham gave the keynote address. Comedian Bob Hope served as co-host of the entertainment.

But the day didn’t end as planned. It attracted droves of protesters, some of whom stripped naked and cooled off in the Reflecting Pool. To keep them at bay, the Park Police eventually resorted to tear gas, which blew back and wafted over the celebration itself as the Navy Band wrapped up with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In recent years, President Donald Trump has used the holiday to invoke symbols of military strength and national grandeur.

In 2019, he headlined a “Salute to America” event with a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, accompanied by military band performances, a military flyover, and a fireworks display. According to a recently-released General Accounting Office Report, the event cost about $13 million, double that of previous years.

For 2020, the president opted for the sweeping stage of Mount Rushmore, where on July 3 he is scheduled to give remarks and attend a firework display in front of sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s giant carved faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. On July Fourth he will host this year’s “Salute to America” from the White House South Lawn and the Ellipse. It will include music, military demonstrations, and a flyover of military aircraft along the East Coast from Boston to D.C.

Typically, presidents use patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July to reaffirm communal values – to remind us what being American entails and how our national values serve the greater good in the U.S. and around the world, says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M and author of “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”

President Trump has famously shown little interest in acting the role of a traditional, unifying U.S. chief executive. His version of July 4 showmanship, says Dr. Mercieca in an email, seems to define American exceptionalism as “winning” – depicting the nation as a first-class military and economic power, as opposed to a symbol of liberty and justice for the world.

The majestic backdrops are meant to link President Trump to his greatest predecessors, she says. He’s like Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. He’s like Washington, Jefferson, et al, at Mount Rushmore.

“It’s convenient staging that is meant to bolster Trump’s claims to being American exceptionalism personified,” says Dr. Mercieca.

A political holiday 

Has President Trump politicized national July Fourth celebrations? Critics complain that his recent predecessors didn’t make themselves the keynote speaker of the Washington celebrations. D.C. residents bemoan the loss of what used to be a relaxing local break from politics – a concert on the Mall, followed by spectacular fireworks, with nary a partisan word to be heard from the podium.

“This is a show of pageantry, and it really is not getting down to the root of the issues for the minority communities, the Black and brown communities that are suffering indiscriminately and unequally due to COVID-19, and to all of the unjust murders of people of color,” says Dr. Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, department chair and associate professor of history at Xavier University of Louisiana. “That’s a really, really big thing.”

But in a basic sense, the celebrations around July Fourth really have always been political, notes David Waldstreicher, a historian of early America at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The question, he says, is which vision of American citizenship it’s being used to advance.

President Trump, for his part, has charged that the current push to remove Confederate memorials is, in its own way, a politicization of American history. On Wednesday, the president went so far as to threaten to veto the annual defense authorization bill if it includes a provision that would lead to the renaming of Fort Bragg and other U.S. military bases that bear Confederate names.

On this issue Dr. Waldstreicher points back to the original July Fourth, when stripping the new nation of the symbols of its old colonial overlords, such as statues of the English king, was a part of, indeed central to, the meaning of the day.

“Nothing is more American than tearing down statues in the name of the people’s right to decide what is an apt symbol of popular rule,” he says in an email. “In that sense, even with some accompanying flag-burnings, every day is the Fourth of July.”

Indeed, protests might be as much a Fourth of July celebration as picnics.

“Freedom is never given, it’s always demanded,” says novelist Tina McElroy Ansa of St. Simons Island, Georgia, talking about this particular moment in American race relations. “We are not asking the government for something. We are moving ahead and changing and improving and getting glitches out.”

Staff writers Patrik Jonsson, Noah Robertson, and Sophie Hills contributed to this report.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Elizabeth Johnson Rice’s name.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.