July 04, 2019 

By Imani Sumbi 

Contributing Writer  


“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” When Frederick Douglass asked this question during an Independence Day speech in 1852, he exposed the flagrant hypocrisy of White Americans who celebrated their country’s freedom and independence from tyranny, while nearly four million American men, women and children remained enslaved – no closer to freedom than they had been in 1776. 


America’s greatest failure is the same today, as it was when Douglass delivered that incisive address over 150 years ago: the gap between this country’s noblest ideals and its bleakest realities remains dismally large. America has made great strides forward in civil rights and social justice but nonetheless falls far short of equality and dignity for all people. 


Unsurprisingly, Black Americans find themselves bearing the harshest consequences of that shortcoming. Despite their invaluable contributions to every aspect of the American experience, from the revolution onward, African Americans are underserved, under-recognized, and underprivileged. They have been among the fiercest champions of American values, yet they have time and again been cast as the enemies of those values and criminalized for their activism. 


This paradox makes patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July particularly contentious within the Black community. Is the American Revolution to which Africans contributed so greatly, yet, reaped so little reward from, worth celebrating? The answer to this question is neither simple nor absolute; ultimately, it depends on who you ask. 


From a historian’s perspective, Independence Day might seem like a holiday that belongs as much to African Americans as it does to White Americans, especially considering how integral both slaves and free Blacks were to the American victory. 


During the revolution, Africans served as soldiers, spies and servants to White military members. But their contributions went beyond military manpower. They also helped construct the ideological basis for American politics. According to Brenda Stevenson, a professor and Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History at UCLA, Africans were instrumental in fostering “a popular notion of freedom and equality” in the new nation. 


“African Americans were first and foremost interested in gaining freedom and expanding their rights as people who were contributing to the development of the economy and to the society,” Stevenson says.


A chief example of an African who stood up early on against British military and economic tyranny was Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent who escaped slavery and is best known for being the first to fall in the Boston Massacre and thus the first martyr of the American Revolution. 


It was the advocacy of freedom by Crispus Attucks and other revolution-era figures, Stevenson argues, that paved the way for gradual emancipation in the northern states and, of course, the ultimate abolition of slavery in 1865. For these reasons, she says, the American Revolution is worthy of celebration. 


“Of course, African Americans celebrate the founding of the country because it is our country and we helped to found it,” Stevenson says. “We should realize what our contributions are; we should celebrate it.”


However, it is also important to acknowledge that the same pursuit of freedom drove over ten thousand slaves to defect to the British side of the war – several times the number of Africans who fought on the American side. In fact, it was not until the Virginian Royal Governor Lord Dunmore promised freedom to runaway slaves who joined his “Ethiopian Regiment” that General George Washington lifted an initial ban on recruiting Africans into the Continental Army. 


Taking this into consideration, other historians are hesitant to espouse a view of the American Revolution as a crucial catalyst for the eventual abolition of slavery. 


In his 2014 book “The Counter-Revolution of 1776,” Moores Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston Gerald Horne goes as far as to say that the American Revolution was a step backwards for African Americans. Horne cites three key developments that followed the war as evidence for this claim: the expansion of slavery in the United States, the ascension of the United States to the role of leading country in the slave trade, and the abolition of slavery in England (which preceded our 13th Amendment by over 30 years). To Horne, Independence Day is nothing but a “fraudulent and bogus” holiday, thinly masking the original sin of slavery and its perpetuation through the American Revolution.





While Stevenson and Horne’s differing opinions illuminate the nuances of interpreting the historical contributions of Africans to the American Revolution, it is also enlightening to consider the viewpoint of a Black veteran – someone who, like the free and enslaved Blacks in the 1770s, put themselves in grave danger for the sake of a country that was not guaranteed to return the favor. 


Vietnam War veteran Crispus Attucks, 68, is no stranger to this unfortunate reality. Raised in Compton, California, he joined the Marine Corps immediately after high school in the hopes of learning discipline and practical skills. At the time, the civil rights movement was in full force, and Willis was frequently criticized for fighting on behalf of an America that had yet to enforce basic rights for its Black citizens. Nonetheless, he says he felt the military could put him on a path for success. 


Willis had no intention to fight in Vietnam when he enlisted. According to his own account, he was supposed to go through training to learn how to repair tanks, diesels and heavy equipment, and then go on to school. Instead, he was told during his second phase of training that his leadership was needed in Vietnam, and so he would not be going to school. Willis remembers this as the “very first betrayal” he dealt with during his military career. 


Willis arrived in Vietnam in April of 1969. His 19th birthday came and went. In September of that same year, he was wounded and medivacked out of the war. After being hospitalized for four months, Willis was given honorable discharge and 50 percent service-connected disability compensation from the VA. 


Several years later, Willis set out to get his disability compensation raised to 100 percent. He contacted Rep. Maxine Waters, who initiated a congressional inquiry for his records. That set off an intense battle with the VA, which repeatedly rejected his request for a disability raise for six years until it was finally granted.


Today, Willis remembers his time in the military as “an experience worth experiencing that I would never want to experience again.” Despite the trauma he experienced in battle and the betrayal he felt due to the actions of the Marine Corps and the VA, he is grateful for how the military molded him as a person and for the benefits he now receives as a veteran. 




So how does Willis feel about American patriotism and the Fourth of July? Well, it’s complicated. 


Although he says the military heightened his sense of patriotism and his life turned out well after returning from Vietnam, Willis recognizes that not all Black veterans have been so lucky.


“If you look back through history, I think every Black person that went into the military had hopes of being assimilated into the system and being treated equally and fairly,” he says. “And the part that’s really disheartening is that really never happened.”


At the same time, what Willis has learned from travelling around the world and seeing how people are treated in other countries has made him grateful to be an American. 


Willis retains happy childhood memories of Fourth of July block parties and fireworks, but he never saw it the same way after returning from war. For him, Juneteenth is a more appropriate date for Black Americans to celebrate social progress. 


“I think [the Fourth of July] is another celebration for folks other than us,” he says. “Even though we fought during those times.” 


Willis’s story is powerful because it captures the fact that patriotism remains a double-edged sword for many African Americans. It is an echo of the history described by Dr. Brenda Stevenson and Dr. Horne – a history of Black Americans fervently serving their country in the hopes of gaining equal footing and then being denied, making only incremental progress. 


Altogether, it’s deeply troubling that Douglass’s 1852 speech still feels sharply relevant as far as its articulation of unfulfilled American promises. But this does not mean that patriotism is frivolous and unproductive. 


Today, on July 4, 2019, there are numerous African Americans celebrating the holiday who have demonstrated an exceptionally strong sense of patriotism by becoming public servants. In celebrating the Fourth of July, they are not obscuring the ills of the past but honoring the African Americans throughout history who believed the future could be better. 


Here is what a few of California’s prominent African American politicians have to say about the holiday.


Rep. Maxine Waters:


“Since our founding, the United States has been engaged in a constant struggle to realize the full promise and potential of our founding principles. As an African American woman and lifelong public servant, I not only have a profound respect for the Constitution, but I also believe that our community has a responsibility to continue in the tradition of our foremothers and forefathers who literally placed their lives on the line in order to force this country to live up to its promise of equality and justice for all.



“This year and every year I am proud to join with our community to celebrate Independence Day in my District. However, instead of honoring the history and sacrifices that have been made for our country, we now have a president who has chosen to politicize our nation’s Independence Day celebration in Washington and change it to include military flyovers, army tanks, and a political rally speech. Do not be misled! As Donald Trump parades in front of this country on Independence Day claiming that he, and he alone, will ‘Make America Great Again,’ what he really needs to understand is that African Americans have already done more to make this country ‘great’ than he ever will. We are fighting every day to make this democracy stronger, more representative, and more just. It was African American civil rights leaders who fought for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination of any kind in voting by outlawing practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and voter intimidation that were used to discourage minorities from voting, and it’s African Americans in states all across this county who are rising up and fighting for voting rights and equal representation today. It was African American heroes in the armed services like the Tuskegee Airmen who risked their lives on the battlefield despite the fact that they were treated as second class citizens at home, and it’s African Americans today that are leading the Movement for Black Lives, fighting for quality public education and the preservation of HBCUs, advocating for veterans and military families, strengthening organized labor, securing equal pay for women, taking action on behalf of farmers and rural communities, and doing all that we can to protect working families’ ability to have quality and affordable health care.


“Unlike Donald Trump, we don’t do any of this for credit or applause. African Americans have grabbed the mantle of leadership because we have an unwavering commitment to this country, and because we believe in its promise of justice and fairness for all. And that’s exactly what we must continue to do in the face of the unprecedented threat that this White House and Administration pose to our democracy and our most sacred ideals.”


Rep. Karen Bass:


“As a public servant, the Fourth [of July] is a reminder to continue to strive for a country in which everyone is free and everyone is equal,” Bass said.  We are not that right now; we will continue to fight.”


Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson:


“We all fight for the same American Dream – the desire to build a better future for our children than we had – and patriotic holidays are a time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going, and the obstacles that are in the way of us getting there.


“Patriotism is not about saying that our country has a perfect history or trying to look past that history. Patriotism, for me, is a sense of pride in where you're from, recognizing its flaws, and being committed to making that place a better place to grow up and live for the next generation. It's about having a desire to see the United States and our society live up to its full potential. And it's why I became a public servant – because I believe in where we are going, even if there are hiccups along the way.


 “We can’t for a second forget that this country was founded on the backs and at the expense of Black people. Still, this is my home, and I'm proud of it, despite its flaws. I'm committed to leaving it better than I came into it.”


Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas:


“By the end of the revolutionary war, roughly 5000 African American soldiers served in battles ranging from Lexington and Concord to the climatic siege of Yorktown. They did so because they ultimately believed it would result in their freedom. The story of this country has never been one of a perfect history, but it is a history that is equally ours. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we also honor Crispus Attucks, James Armistead Lafayette, Peter Salem, Barzaillai Lew, and many others that have shed blood, sweat, and tears to make this country what is should be.”


Regardless of how you feel about the history behind this holiday, the Fourth of July is as good a time as any to reflect on how far this nation has come on issues of inequality and systemic oppression thanks to the tireless efforts of countless African Americans who loved this country enough to fight for the fulfillment of the principles upon which it was founded.










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Brenda Stevenson (Courtesy Photo)






Crispus Attucks (Courtesy Photo)






Frederick Douglass (Courtesy Photo)






Herb Wesson (Courtesy Photo)






Karen Bass (Courtesy Photo)






Mark Ridley-Thomas (Courtesy Photo)






Maxine Waters (Courtesy Photo)


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