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Frederick Douglass and the fight against racism

Brian Champ

February 26, 2017

The period since Donald Trump took office has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in hate crimes across the board.  This includes increased Islamophobic attacks, racist incidents against African-americans and bomb-threats and attacks against synagogues and cemeteries.  The connection to the far right through Steve Bannon is very worrying, as is the reluctance of Trump to denounce racist attacks.  But the pressure on the president to at least pay lip service to fighting racism has also produced some bizarre moments, though not less offensive, in the first weeks of his presidency.

To mark Black History Month, Trump held a "little breakfast" media event where he delivered a speech which revealed the President’s ignorance about the history of the struggle for black liberation in America. As well he used the opportunity to make the speech about how he is persecuted by the media (there had been an early report that Trump had removed the bust of Dr. King from the Oval Office that Trump denounced as "fake news" despite the fact that the NY Times had corrected the error). 

Name dropping Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Trump said that they, along with "millions more black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact."  Nowhere did he mention the history of slavery or show any knowledge into what their struggles were and, weirdly, commented that "Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed."

Neither he nor press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to be aware that Douglass died over 120 years ago.  Perhaps their awareness of him has more to do with existing Republican Party groups that still use his name, a legacy of Douglass's impact on the politics of the civil war when Republicans were the party of Lincoln.

The importance of Frederick Douglass's leadership in the movement to abolish slavery cannot be overstated, and he should be recognized as one of the most important figures in 19th century American history, bar none. Born into slavery he escaped to the north to become a leader of the abolitionist movement, a prominent journalist advocating for the abolition of slavery, women's rights and social justice in Rochester NY.

He was well known for his fiery oratory in the cause of liberation and social justice and argued powerfully that slavery could not be defeated by moral force alone, as some other abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison (editor of the abolitionist Liberator newspaper) contended, but would require physical force to defeat the plantation owners. He famously argued: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

During the civil war he recruited escaped slaves into the union army while at the same time a powerful critic of Lincoln's half-hearted early prosecution of the Civil War.  At one point he made clear his intention to stop recruiting former slaves to fight for the union army and President Lincoln thought it was important enough to meet with him and hear his council about the fight to end slavery.

Born a slave in the Maryland countryside in 1817-18, he never knew who his father was, only that he was white - possibly his owner. He was separated from his mother shortly after his birth, which was one of the inhumane practices that was common at the time. He was later sent Baltimore, to a relative of his first owner, who had a shipyard. He used whatever resources were available to teach himself to read and write, including engaging the local neighbourhood school boys as tutors.  

Later he ended up in a horrible situation with an owner determined to crush his will. In September 1838, when he was 20-21 years old, he fled to freedom in New York City where he first encountered the abolitionist paper, The Liberator, edited by William Lloyd Garrison.  He got a subscription and became involved in abolitionist activities, and by the early 1840’s had become an influential and inspiring speaker, especially when he drew on his own story.

He was recruited by the Massachussets Anti-Slavery Society to be their agent, and toured across the country, delivering rousing speeches.  In 1845, his first of three autobiographies, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” was published recounting the harsh conditions of his life as a slave and his struggle for freedom.

Afraid of being recaptured, Douglass moved to the UK for two years, delivering anti-slavery speeches to great acclaim. Supporters in Britain raised 150 pounds sterling so that Douglass could buy his freedom and on December 12, 1846 he  became a free man.

He began publishing his own paper, The North Star, in Rochester New York, and became influenced by John Brown and his insistence that slavery cannot be ended without violence.  This became a point of division between him and William Lloyd Garrison, who saw the struggle as a moral one to embarrass slaveholders into renouncing slavery.  He attended the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York and remained a fighter for women’s voting rights throughout his life.

He helped many fugitive slaves escape through the northern US to Canada as a participator in the Underground railroad.

He was one of the most effective fighters against the institution of slavery in the US and one of it’s most inspirational leaders.  When the Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision came down, denying the Scott family from bringing a lawsuit to court against his master, affirming slaveholders rights even in non-slave states, he responded:

 “You will readily ask me how I am affected by this devilish decision — this judicial incarnation of wolfishness? My answer is, and no thanks to the slaveholding wing of the Supreme Court, my hopes were never brighter than now. I have no fear that the National Conscience will be put to sleep by such an open, glaring, and scandalous tissue of lies as that decision is, and has been, over and over, shown to be.  If it were at all likely that the people of these free States would tamely submit to this demoniacal judgment, I might feel gloomy and sad over it, and possibly it might be necessary for my people to look for a home in some other country. But as the case stands, we have nothing to fear. …  This very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system.”

In 1852 he was invited to give a speech on the Fourth of July in Rochester, New York.  He wrote an amazing speech called “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”, which highlighted the contradiction between the ideals of the declaration of independence and the reality for millions of negro slaves:

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!”

But probably the most important role that Douglass played from a revolutionary standpoint was as a recruiter of ex-slaves to fight for their freedom in the union army. This provided the hard edge of the sword of revolution to fulfill the meaning of the words in the declaration of independence: hundreds of thousands of highly motivated freedom fighters, many inspired to join by a Douglass article or speech. He travelled around the north delivering speeches and published articles exhorting men of colour to fight to secure their freedom, and that they were the most effective fighters against slavery. An article called “Men of Color to Arms”, published in March of 1863 made the case for action:

“[W]ith every reverse to the national arms, with every exulting shout of victory raised by the slaveholding rebels, I have implored the imperiled nation to unchain against her foes, her powerful black hand. Slowly and reluctantly that appeal is beginning to be heeded. Stop not now to complain that it was not heeded sooner. … This is not the time to discuss that question. Leave it to the future. When the war is over, the country is saved, peace is established, and the black man’s rights are secured, as they will be, history with an impartial hand will dispose of that and sundry other questions. Action! Action! not criticism, is the plain duty of this hour. Words are now useful only as they stimulate to blows. The office of speech now is only to point out when, where, and how to strike to the best advantage. There is no time to delay. The tide is at its flood that leads on to fortune. From East to West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, ‘Now or never. Liberty won by white men would lose half its luster. ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.’ ‘Better even die free, than to live slaves.’ This is the sentiment of every brave colored man amongst us.”

This remarkable man never stopped fighting in the service of human liberation until his death in 1895, remaining a staunch defender of the gains won in the civil war and fighting against Jim Crow in the last years of his life. 

And now, over 120 years after his death, his spirit lives in the rising movements that are resisting the far right that have been encouraged by Trump’s racist, misogynistic agenda.  His spirit lives on in Black Lives Matter, drawing attention to the targeting and killing of black men by police across the U.S. His spirit lives on with the millions who participated in the women’s march to affirm a different America from that represented by Trump and his cronies. We need to follow the example of Douglass, and forge a path to liberation with vigorous resistance: "Action! Action! ... There is no time to delay."


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