The Entwined History of Freedom and Racism – The Nation

The Entwined History of Freedom and Racism – The Nation


Give us liberty and give them death,” said David Duke at a rally for the Ku Klux Klan in Baton Rouge, La., in 1975. His thunderous words were a play on the famous quotation from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Henry’s statement was intended to express his commitment to the well-known American ideal of freedom, which he and his peers took to be at stake in their forthcoming revolutionary struggle with the British Empire. But when Duke gave this speech as the Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, he had in mind another ideal with deep roots in American history: racial domination.

The two men could hardly have more different legacies. Henry is venerated as a “founding father,” while Duke is reviled as a disgraceful bigot. But any attempt to delegitimize Duke’s appropriation of Henry’s words and the ideal they represent must also contend with an uncomfortable and inconvenient truth: The freedom that Henry, a plantation and slave owner, and his fellow founders took to be worth defending was also linked to the racial domination that organized life and labor in the American colonies. The revolution was a struggle for self-rule, but it also sought
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