In Carrboro, ‘What to the slave is the Fourth of July’ provides meaning to retired public defender

Hundreds turned out at a past Fourth of July celebrations in Carrboro.
Hundreds turned out at a past Fourth of July celebrations in Carrboro. N&O file photo

James Williams, a lawyer who recently retired as head of the Orange-Chatham public defender’s office, has had conflicted feelings for many years about Fourth of July celebrations.

As a 66-year-old African-American man who grew up in eastern North Carolina when schools were segregated, Williams said all the cookouts and fireworks celebrations often overlook the fact that on July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was ratified, many blacks in this country were still slaves.

“Even as a youngster, I knew there was a disconnect between what the Fourth of July supposedly stood for and what it meant for many black people,” Williams said.

Then several years ago, Williams came across a speech given by Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist movement leader whose essays, oratory and other contributions to social reform in the 1800s became a topic of conversation this year after President Donald Trump’s unusual remarks about him. During a Black History Month event, Trump said Douglass “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more,” prompting some to question whether the president thought the abolitionist was among the living.

Williams hopes to bring more recognition to Douglass on Tuesday at Carrboro’s Fourth of July festivities. For the fourth year in a row, Williams will lead a reading of “What to the slave is the Fourth of July,” a speech that Douglass gave on July 5, 1852, reminding his audience in Rochester, N.Y., that not all within the country’s borders were free.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” Douglass said in the speech. “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 which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

“There’s so much in that speech that makes it so powerful and pertinent today,” Williams said, adding that sometimes people question why, on a day of celebration, he wants to bring up the country’s painful past.

“People want to celebrate what’s positive and forget about the negative stuff,” Williams said. “I say, ‘You can’t just pick and choose.’ You have to look at the whole to understand it.”

Retired, but still working

Williams retired from the public defender’s office in Orange and Chatham counties on May 31 after 27 years at the helm.

While there, Williams not only represented some of the district’s more high-profile defendants, he also spent much of his career working to highlight racial inequities in the justice system and trying to come up with programs to curb those problems.

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall praised Williams recently for coming to him for help on larger justice system issues even though they typically were on different sides of a case in the courtroom.

“James and I served on many committees and boards together,” Woodall said. “I don’t think there are many elected DAs and head public defenders who have worked as closely on issues as James and I have. I think it’s a little bit unusual, but I also think it speaks to who James is and how we are here in this district.”

With a reputation as a well-prepared trial lawyer, Williams has long seen the practice of law as a path toward civil rights.

He was 12 years old in 1964, when his interest in becoming an attorney was whetted by a fiery speech given by Floyd McKissick Sr., an attorney who became the national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, founder of Soul City in Warren County and father of Floyd McKissick Jr., a Durham state legislator.

“I was captivated by him,” Williams said.

That led him to Duke University for undergraduate and law degrees.

Williams did a brief stint in private practice in Charlotte with civil rights attorneys, then came to Orange County to interview for a position in the public defender’s office in 1990. He got the job and stayed. In late May and June, Williams received many honors and recognitions for the work he did, one of which was the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, presented to North Carolinians who have “a proven record of extraordinary service to the state.”

As a new retiree, Williams continues to work on many of those projects – with the North Carolina Public Defenders’ Committee on Racial Equity, which he founded, the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities, the Orange County Bias-Free Policing Coalition and other organizations trying to right injustices in the justice system.

He plans to take a few trips, like the one he went on recently to Atlantic City, N.J., with his wife.

On Independence Day, he’ll be in the Carrboro Century Center at noon, reciting words from the past, hoping Douglass’s 1852 oratory might help blaze a path toward more equality in the future.

“His words were prescient,” Williams said.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1