By late morning on July 4, news of President Trump’s plans to headline the nation’s 243rd birthday celebration at the Lincoln Memorial with tanks, flyovers, and fireworks barely rated a mention among major news outlets, which focused on an earthquake that rocked California.

It’s quite likely, though, that millions of Trump’s supporters—and certainly his communications team, terrified of the kinds of pitiful crowds Trump drew to his inauguration—were praying that the skies wouldn’t burst open with thunderstorms when he stepped to the podium. But in the spirit of Malcolm X, who asserted that whenever the slave master’s house caught fire, the field negro prayed for a breeze, millions more Americans were also praying for torrential downpours.

It was in this context of division and animosity that the Reverend William J. Barber II, founder of the Moral Monday marches and the Poor People’s Campaign, delivered a searing sermon on the eve of the nation’s holiday at the Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh.

Barber, a hulking man draped in red robes and a white clerical collar, had a momentous task as he ambled down the church aisle of the nearly full church. His sermon promised to revisit one of the great speeches in American history, delivered by the abolitionist, runaway slave Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, on behalf of the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, where he pointedly asked, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Barber, the former state president of the NAACP and a recipient of the McArthur Foundation’s 2018 Genius Grant, sat down, closed his eyes, and leaned back against a chair that was just behind the pulpit where he would riff on Douglass’s speech with a sermon that asked, “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to the Immigrant and People of Color: A Sermon for the Nation About Political Violence Against Immigrants and People of Color.”

Prior to Barber’s sermon, young attendees lit three hundred candles to highlight the fact that there are more than three hundred detention centers on American soil. They also spoke the names of immigrants who have died in detention, some were as young as seven and eight; one child was nineteen months old.

The night was a “time to bear witness to the pain and suffering of our children, mothers and fathers, young and old,” said Pullen Memorial pastor Nancy Petty, who called Trump’s immigration policies “sinful.”

“I don’t know about you, but lately, as I look at images everywhere I turn, I see young and old stacked on top of one another, and my heart felt sighs that are too deep for words,” she said. 

Petty then asked the congregation to “cry out. Let God hear your cries and your sighs.”

The invitation was met with a vast silence, punctuated by someone crying out, “Shame!” Another: “Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we do!”

The silence stood in marked contrast to the now-familiar scenes of Trump rallies in which multitudes cheer the demonization of Central American immigrants and rapturously chant their support of the president’s wish to “build the wall!”

Robin Tanner, an American Universalist Unitarian minister who said she was a descendant of a seventeenth-century indentured servant, denounced Trump, political leaders, and clergy leaders for their hypocrisy “in the face of American chattel slavery.”

Tanner criticized the “false prophets” who ignore the plight of “enslaved children,” while celebrating white nationalism. She lamented babies in immigration camps who must wear dirty diapers while their mothers are forced to drink from toilets, and “the raucous celebration of liberty while her body is caged in a concentration camp.”

“The ancestors are stirring,” Tanner repeated throughout her speech, on a night in which the names of those who have died in immigration camps and those who are in sanctuary in North Carolina were conjoined with the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos, civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer, the voter-registration martyr Viola Lizutto, northern abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, Samuel Ward, and, of course, Frederick Douglass.

When Barber took to the podium, he noted that when Douglass spoke in 1852, his critique of America’s birthday “was not from some great hater of America.”

“Douglass, like many people of color, never criticized America from an eternal hatred. There was mourning in his critique,” Barber explained. “They always had hope for the nation, in spite of the hell they put them through. People of color have always been this nation’s greatest patriots and have given more than they have ever taken.”

Barber then read excerpts from Douglass’s 1852 speech, and noted beforehand that Douglass’s speech at the behest of Ladies Anti-Slavery showed that “this year is not the first year that it’s been the year of the woman.”

He then read what is probably the most often quoted section of Douglass’s speech. One can only wonder how the Great Orator’s words resonate today with undocumented residents who are living in the shadows.

“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. 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.”

Barber reminded the congregation that America “all too often has always tried to cover up and parade up, rather than face up to the demons and hatred in our body politic that need to be exorcised forever.”

He warned of a nation about European immigrants who were once considered outsiders and the perniciousness of previous American policies in Central American countries; the U.S. financing of wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua that killed thousands, destabilized the countries, and contributed to an increasing wave of refugees who are now showing up at the southern border; he pointed to the usurpation of Mexican territories during the Mexican-American War, a two-year conflict that ended in 1848, when the Mexican government was forced to sell over half its land to the United States.

“To those who say they don’t believe in open borders, I say that’s because you believe in stolen borders,” Barber said.

The activist pastor rebuffed the “mythology” of racism having at its root ignorance, fear, and hatred, along with the mistaken thesis that these social maladies can be remedied with education. He says that the inverse is true: racist policies developed by “brilliant men” who foster “cultural lies” that are the true culprits underlying racist ideas.

Those policies include gerrymandering, voter suppression, the assertion by John C. Calhoun—the white supremacist seventh vice president of the United States—that “slavery was a positive good,” and the caging of undocumented immigrants.

“That’s why we’re in the hell we’re in, and that’s why we must protest much,” Barber said.

The fiery clergyman ended his sermon not with Douglass, but instead by reading a lengthy poem, “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1935 by Langston Hughes.

Barber’s recital built in intensity with each stanza, bringing the congregation to its feet by the conclusion.

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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