“Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” ~Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was born a slave, in 1818, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County Maryland. He escaped slavery in 1838 on his third attempt, thanks to the assistance of his future wife Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore with whom Douglass had fallen in love. Over the years following, Douglass emerged as one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing to thousands on a range of causes. During his lifetime, he became known as an eminent human rights leader in the abolition movement [and] was the first black citizen to hold a high U.S. government rank. In 1845, after publication of his (best selling) autobiography, Douglass sailed to Ireland and stayed for two years in order to evade recapture as a runaway slave. During those years, Douglass’ British supporters gathered funds to purchase his legal freedom, and in 1847 he returned to the United States a free man.
After his return to America, he wrote and published abolitionist newspapers, and in 1848, he was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. . . . By the time of the Civil War, Douglass was one of the most famous black men in the country. He used his status to influence the role of African Americans in the war and their status in the country. In 1863, Douglass conferred with President Abraham Lincoln regarding the treatment of black soldiers, and with President Andrew Johnson on the subject of black suffrage. In 1872 he became the first African American nominated for vice president of the United States, an event which marked the first time that an African American appeared on a presidential ballot.
Douglass died on February 20, 1895; his legacy as an intellectual and literate abolitionist and human rights advocate — a former slave — and as an accomplished author persists through the current day.
I find it ironic that this day in Baltimore — the city where escaped slave Frederick Douglass enjoyed his first moments of freedom — there remain in full view those issues of racial bias and unrest triggered by deeply embedded remnants of that pre-reconstruction darkness. I also find it fascinating that so many of Douglass’ words continue to describe so much of what today remains so terribly wrong with this country — those racist irrationalities which so effectively serve to negate her myriad claims of freedom and equality for all. Below are selected Douglass quotes which exemplify both his reality and his vision.
“[Y]our national greatness, swelling vanity; 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.”
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
“In thinking of America, I sometimes find myself admiring her bright blue sky — her grand old woods — her fertile fields — her beautiful rivers — her mighty lakes, and star-crowned mountains. But my rapture is soon checked, my joy is soon turned to mourning. When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal actions of slaveholding, robbery and wrong, — when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers, the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten, and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing.”
“…I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land… I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.’ I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. . . . The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”
I cannot begin to explain why it is that this nation’s racist past still remains so deeply embedded, why evidences still emerge so regularly and in such widespread fashion. The names of recent victims are manifest; from Trayvon Martin, to Michael Brown, to Eric Gardner, to Freddie Gray — and who can count how many before and since — each and all point to those deeply embedded flaws, to the attitudes that make a mockery of this nation’s premise of equality for all. Frederick Douglass summarized the essence of our dilemma considerably more than a century ago when he wrote,
“The great problem that confronts the American people today is a national problem — whether this great nation of ours is great enough to live up to its own convictions, carry out its own declaration of independence, and execute the provisions of its own constitution.”
The question remains: whereto from here, America? Can you banish the hates and fears of your heritage? Or are you intent on remaining neck deep in the quagmire of the ignorance which so vividly defines both your past and the present day?