Man! Fourth of July again! It’s not that I’m any kind of Yankee Doodle Dandy or nothing, but this date is one of those days that I can remember particular details throughout the years, mostly because it is different than most other days.
Let’s see, in 1967 I was wearing my Boy Scout uniform somewhat proudly (although the uniform was the part I liked least about the whole Boy Scout experience) as I marched with my troop down a series of streets in Laurel, MD. We marched more or less in formation, attempting to stay in rhythm with the snare drums being rattled by the Fife & Drum Corps behind us. Local politicians sat astride the town’s fire trucks and their own convertibles and townspeople lined the curbs of most of the streets we marched on.
Thinking back on it, I don’t recall too many black faces in the crowds and none in the march. Earlier that year there had been incident in the Grove, which was the so-called Negro section of town where a couple local youths had attempted to burn down the church there as part of an initiation process into the KKK. After failing to ignite the church (which was made of stone), they moved their incendiary devices to a nearby house that was only saved because of the quick-thinking inhabitant’s neighbors.
In the days that followed there were stone-throwing incidents along the highway that ran through the center of the Grove as African-American youths threw stones at cars bearing white-skinned folks. The local police stepped up their presence in the neighborhood and refused to grant civil rights organizations a permit to protest the KKK in their neighborhood. Not long afterwards, the KKK marched through the town with a police escort.
It wasn’t long before the police and fire departments were under the gaze of the Feds, who convinced the respective chiefs to clean the klansmen out of their departments. No wonder no black folks marched or watched that day.
Nine years later it was 1976. The US Bicentennial Celebration was in full swing and the Fourth of July was the grand climax. Gerald Ford was president, courtesy of the Rockefellers and other power elites who just wanted Richard Nixon out of the White House. A good number of my friends were members of the fledgling Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)-a Maoist organization that had risen from the ashes of the SDS and other New Left organizations after 1969. The RCP was co-sponsoring a march in Philadelphia on the Fourth, as were the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC) and a variety of like-minded organizations, including the Weather Underground (unofficially, of course). These two marches were operating parallel to each other because of various political differences understandable only to leftists. I was planning on attending the Yippies Fourth of July Smoke-In in DC. My friends went up to Philly the night of the 3rd after failing to convince me to go. Some other friends and I headed into DC. Johnny Cash and the Beach Boys were part of the official celebration and the cops ended up being part of ours.
Although I spent many a Fourth of July at some kind of a rock concert or festival, the one that sticks in my mind for the wrong reasons is a Willie Nelson Family Picnic I attended in the 1980s. My buddy, R, and I were plenty tanked on a variety of substances and were waiting in the beer line while Emmylou Harris prepared to take the stage. Two big hairy bikers walked up to the two of us, handed us a bottle of Rebel Yell whiskey and offered us a drink. While we sipped on the bottle, the bigger one handed us each a business card. I didn’t think much of mine and stuck it in my pocket without looking. R read his and immediately tore it to shreds.
“Take your fuckin’ whiskey, motherfuckers,” he yelled. “And get out of my face!”
What the hell, I thought, as R thrust the bottle into the big guy’s hand.
“If I weren’t at a concert,” continued R. “I’d kick your ass.”
Now R was a big dude, but he didn’t like to fight. The two bikers looked at him like he was out of his mind and the big one asked: “Ain’t you proud to be white?”
R took a step closer to the guy, looked him in the eye and said, “The only people who I’m prejudiced against is racist fuckers like you. Now get out of my face before things get ugly.”
The two men walked away, wondering what the hell was wrong with R and I. After we purchased our beers, I looked at the card I had stuck in my pocket. It was a business card inviting us to a Klan meeting. I followed R’s motions and tore it into small pieces and let it fall to the ground.
Isidor Bush, a Jewish anti-slavery fighter who was born in Prague and a partisan of the 1848 Revolution there, once gave a speech opposing slavery and demanding immediate emancipation wherein he pointed out that it was not the enslaved men and women who needed to be pitied, but the slavers and their supporters:
“I pray you have pity for yourselves, not for the Negro. Slavery demoralizes, slavery fanaticism blinds you; it has arrayed brother against brother, son against father; it has destroyed God’s noblest work–a free and happy people.”
The words and the thought they represent are almost Fanonesque in their understanding of the colonialist mind. We live their legacy daily, as our society stumbles blissfully along, refusing to acknowledge the impact our history plays on our societal psyche.
And it was Isidor’s contemporary, Frederick Douglass, who asked, “What good to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
I sometimes wonder what good it is today to many of our countrymen and women, more than a century after emancipation.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. It can be purchased by calling 1 800 233 4830.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org