Colbert I. King, one of WaPo‘s Pulitzer Prize winners (2003), has an article commenting on the difference between Senator Obama’s speech this week at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence, MO and Frederick Douglass’s “4th of July Oration,” which was actually delivered on July 5th 1852 to Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. King is interested in the difference between the two speeches as a measure of America’s progress in race relations and the meaning of patriotism in this context.
Douglass’s speech, delivered 156 years ago today, is one of the masterpieces of American oratory and one of the most eloquent speeches ever delivered in the English language. Indeed, there is nothing Winston Churchill, Henry Clay or Martin Luther King, Jr. could have taught Douglass about tapping the power of the mother tongue. It is routinely included in ‘Great Speeches’ collections, usually in the ‘social criticism’ category, and it really has no peer as an educational tool for teaching people what slavery was like and how it corrupted America’s nobler ideals. You can read the whole dazzling thing right here.
King’s article cites interesting similarities between Senator Obama and Douglass:
Although generations apart, Douglass and Obama have common characteristics. Both are of mixed race. Like Douglass, Obama grew up without the steadying hand of a father…Both men sought life’s fortunes far from their places of birth.
King explains the similarities — and differences — between Obama’s speech and Douglass’s oration, among them:
And in their speeches on independence and patriotism, both cited the courage and wisdom of the men who sought total separation of the colonies from the crown…Obama’s speech, “The America We Love,” lauded the men of Lexington and Concord who launched the American Revolution. Obama also agreed with Douglass on the significance of the founding documents and the idea of liberty as a God-given right worth dying for.
But while Douglass noted his estrangement from America’s experiment with democracy, Obama claimed America as his own and the Fourth of July as a time to rejoice.
To be fair, Douglass concluded his remarkable speech on a stirring note of hope, and there is a sense in which Senator Obama’s nomination represents a giant step forward toward the fulfillment of Douglass’s hope and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. All Americans should be proud that one of our major political parties has advanced to this patriotic milestone, and Democrats can take special pride that our Party has taken the lead. We can also be proud that our nominee apparent has the speech-making skills to illuminate the historic moment. The patriotic challenge before us now is to bring it home on November 4th.