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Hundreds attend reading of Frederick Douglass speech

It was more than a century and a half ago that abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”

Those words filled the air Tuesday on Boston Common. And for those who read them as part of a yearly rite, they rang with particular resonance, after the fall of the Defense of Marriage Act. They were a reminder, said those gathered in the grand Boston park, that the struggle continues to ensure full equality for all under the law.

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They had come for a community reading of Douglass’s 1852 speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.” And they were there, too, for a recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation on its 150th anniversary — less than a week after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that gave married gay couples access to federal benefits.

Underneath the monument dedicated to the first African-American regiment in the Civil War — the Massachusetts 54th — Governor Deval Patrick read from the opening lines of Douglass’s speech to a crowd of nearly 400: “The distance between this platform and the slave plantation from which I escaped is considerable, and the difficulties overcome in getting from the latter to the former are by no means slight. That I am here today, to me, is a matter of astonishment as well as of gratitude.”

Jean-Paul Antoine, 11, his sister, Genevieve, 16, and father, Richard, 41, all of Washington, D.C., read along with a communal reading of a lecture by Frederick Douglass on Tuesday.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Jean-Paul Antoine, 11, his sister, Genevieve, 16, and father, Richard, 41, all of Washington, D.C., read along with a communal reading of a lecture by Frederick Douglass on Tuesday.

Douglass gave his 1852 address in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., not during Independence Day festivities, as he was asked to, but on the day after. It was his protest against a holiday he felt was a great contradiction: Even as Americans celebrated their young nation’s freedoms, millions of African-Americans remained enslaved.

“What Douglass was really telling us was that July 4 was Independence Day only for white folks,” said Horace Seldon, 89, a retired Boston College historian and founding director of Community Change Inc., among the organizers of the first Douglass community reading five years ago.

“This reading was born in thinking about freedom today in the age of Obama,” said David Harris, director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. “Douglass presents us with an opportunity to think about how much more we have to do.”

Social justice groups Community Change, the Institute for Race and Justice, and Mass Humanities have spearheaded public Douglass readings since 2008.

“You have to consider that what we call freedom didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Pleun Bouricius, assistant director of local civic engagement group Mass Humanities. “It has been a process — a struggle.”

Many who stood in line at the Common for their turn at the microphone to read from Douglass’s address spoke of being moved by the abolitionist’s eloquence and honesty.

“This speech still helps us remember to question our government, to be sincere to our principles, and to think about what it means to be an American,” said Brookline resident Dwaign Tyndal, 42, who took an hour off work to hear the reading.

Frieda Garcia, a longtime South End activist, said she arrived early to make sure she had a chance to read. “This man’s words reflect our history in a way I don’t think most history books do,” she said.

Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of Boston’s Museum of African American History, said she has read the 1852 Douglass speech many times to better share the abolitionist’s message at the museum.

“We forget about what was happening when the July 4 tradition began — about who was part of the country and who was not,” she said. “It’s important to celebrate the birth of our country, but it’s important to understand the truth of it, too.”

Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at alyssa.botelho@globe.com.
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