Bittinger: Anticipating the Fourth

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(HOST) Commentator Cyndy Bittinger has been anticipating the Fourth, and wondering what comments we may hear from President Obama on this occasion.

(BITTINGER) The Boston Massacre of 1770, was the first blood shed in our American Revolution against the British.  In that event, the leader, Crispus Attucks, yelled, "Kill the dogs, knock them over."  He was a slave who had run away from his master and saw the British as colonial masters as well.  He died that day as the first martyr of the American Revolution, but one wonders why any Blacks fought for the colonists.  The other side offered a promise of freedom with military service.

When the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, slavery was legal in every colony.  With a very large population of slaves in the South, the writers could not ban slavery. However, Thomas Jefferson, in his initial draft, held the King of England responsible – in Jefferson’s words – for "violating the rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them to slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportations thither." Jefferson also condemned the "market where MEN should be bought and sold" and blamed the British for suppressing legislative attempts to prohibit or restrain the slave trade.

The whole section was removed in a compromise.

Six months after that July 4th, eight Boston Blacks did petition the General Court that they be "restored to the enjoyment of that freedom which is the natural right of all Men."  Their petition languished in a committee and only in 1782 was slavery abolished in Massachusetts.

Vermont’s Constitution banned slavery, but it could not ban racism.  Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave moved to Guilford, but was harassed by a neighbor.  She traveled to Norwich in 1785 to ask Governor Thomas Chittenden for protection from the neighbor.  The governor ordered the selectmen of Guilford to defend the Prince family.  She was probably the first African American woman in Vermont to stand up for her rights as a citizen.

On July 4th, 1852, the famous author and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, reminded his audience that "the sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.  This Fourth of July is yours, not mine."

This leads me to wonder if our new president will refer to African Americans in his words on this July 4th.  He could look back to his "More Perfect Union" speech where he said, "for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another by discrimination."  

He continued, "For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.  It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life.  But it also means binding our particular grievances… to the larger aspirations of all Americans."

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