“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass posed this question in 1852 to an assembly of abolitionists gathered to celebrate American independence. His response was that it was a day that revealed the injustice, cruelty, and hypocrisy of the American promise more than any other. He said, “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 denunciations 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 which would disgrace a nation of savages. 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.” Douglass condemned the reality of African enslavement and the horror of celebrating independence while it persisted.
Today, a question must be asked, “What, to the American entrepreneur, is King’s birthday?” For the descendants of the American slave, the King holiday’s meaning is clear. It is the celebration of emancipation and the federal defense of civil rights that have been won over the last two centuries. That alone is sufficient reason to honor the day forever. Yet, in many places, the King holiday merits apathy, suspicion, and rejection precisely because it invokes a reflection on the continuing hypocrisy of global, racial inequality. For the descendants of the plantation owners, the auctioneers, and the industrialists, Dr. King and his legacy reveal unnecessary regulation, government overreach, and perverse incentives for failure.
Dr. King’s call for an end to poverty, militarism, and racism carries a revolutionary threat to global industrial capital. From that perspective, Dr. King crystallizes an economy of rising costs, exorbitant tax burdens, and constant litigation. For some of the supporters of politicians like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, this celebration is a shame, an unholy affront against liberty, a hollow mockery, bombast and impiety. For this segment of the public, King undermines the essential quality of American individualism by discouraging generations from taking the risk of entrepreneurship. Dr. King remains an icon of socialism and communism, twisting the teachings of the Bible to seize the property of hard-working families.
There may be no way to reconcile these different visions of King and his legacy. Perhaps the holiday can only continue as an accepted public celebration through a few minutes of service and an increasing number of retail discounts. In the absence of any sustained partnerships between people who hold these opposing views, both sides will perish. Dr. King would not have surrendered to this fate. The politics of reconciliation can bring industrial capital to support global equality by transforming world commerce with the largest, most dynamic, informed population of producers and consumers. In this way, the holiday can become an occasion to build new institutions of human dignity. King’s failures to dismantle structural racism in life will yield to the success of his legacy to redeem state legislatures and world banking.
Then, the holiday would manifest Douglass’ hopes for integrity, humanity, and justice.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Executive Director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).