He’s Not a Black Hero: He’s a Hero and He’s Black

Wednesday is for Prayer

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) This picture was taken around 1863.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) This picture was taken around 1863.

The election is over. Now we find out what the men and women elected will actually do. Will they keep their promises, follow through on their objectives or was it all just rhetoric? We will find out. The following is from Kairos Journal and reflects the kind of character and conviction that I wish more politicians displayed whether Republican, Democratic, Green, Independent or Libertarian. Frederick Douglass was/is a hero for all of us.

Pray for all those that were elected yesterday, both the ones you voted for and the ones you voted against. Love and respect them all, and pray that they will govern with integrity.

Justice for African Americans — Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

In 1833 a young African-American slave was hired out by his master to a small tenant farmer, Edward Covey, known in his area as a “slave-breaker,” in the hope that Covey would cure him of his “insolence.” Covey beat him frequently, but one day, when he was 16, the slave, Fredrick Douglass as he was to become, fought back; after two hours Covey admitted defeat and never whipped him again. For Douglass it was a turning point. “I was a changed being after that fight,” he subsequently wrote. “I was nothing before: I was a man now.”1 

It sowed the seed of what was to be a lifetime’s work of fighting for the abolition of slavery. From his birth in Maryland in February 1818 until his escape to New York in September 1838, Frederick Bailey (as he was originally called)2 lived and worked as a slave—first on various plantations and later as an apprentice caulker3 in Baltimore. His early life was harsh, and he was frequently flogged, but one kind slave-owner’s wife taught him to read (illegal for a slave), and in his early teens he experienced a Christian conversion.

Apart from his fight with Covey, another event that, in particular, made a significant impact on his personal development was his discovery, aged 12, of The Columbian Orator, a book of patriotic speeches about liberty first published in 1797. It was designed as a textbook for young (white) boys, but it inspired him to imagine a better world than the “terrible reality” of slavery.4 As a result, Douglass acquired a passion for freedom and justice and a sense of his own dignity and manhood. Liberty, he wrote, “looked from every star, smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.”5 After his escape and arrival in the North in 1838, Douglass was drawn into the American abolitionist movement by William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, and became a salaried lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

An extraordinarily eloquent writer and speaker, he soon became one of the most famous African-Americans of his generation, challenging the conscience of white Americans about the yawning gulf between the moral and political principles set out in the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) and the Bill of Rights (1789) and their toleration of slavery in the American South with its terrible cruelties.6 In one of his most famous speeches, delivered in Rochester, New York, in 1852, he declared: What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.

To him, your celebration is a sham . . . your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery . . . a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.7 Among his many achievements, he founded and edited the longest-running black newspaper in America, helped to arouse British and Irish public opinion against the slave-holding American South, and most important of all, helped to persuade President Lincoln to make the abolition of slavery a principal aim of the Union during the Civil War (1861-1865). Following its abolition and the later adoption, in 1870, of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting blacks the right to vote, Douglass supported the campaign for woman’s suffrage. In his later years he was honored with public office by the Republican Party,8 culminating in his service as U. S. ambassador to Haiti from 1889-1891.9

Douglass not only highlighted the double standards of white Americans but also excoriated the religious hypocrisy of American Christians who supported slavery, insisting that the institution of slavery was incompatible with the spirit and letter of the gospel. “I love that religion,” he declared, “that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by.”10

Footnotes:
1 For these and other details about Frederick Douglass’ life, see his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (Auburn, AL: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1855).
2 He changed his name to Douglass (from Sir Walter Scott’s hero in The Lady in the Lake) in 1838 to hide his identity after his escape to the North.
3 A caulker made ships watertight by stopping up the seams with tar.
4 Douglass, 157.
5 Ibid., 160.
6 Including the fact that in Louisiana, for instance, a black slave-woman could be hanged for teaching her children to read. See Douglass, 409. For other details about the treatment of slaves in the American South, including some of the laws pertaining to slavery, see ibid., 407-418.
7 Ibid., 445. In the same speech he declared, “I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon . . . denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery—the great sin and shame of America!” See ibid., 442.
8 Which he viewed, controversially amongst most other African Americans, as the one most likely to bring about black improvement.
9 “Frederick Douglass,” The Library of Congress Website, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/jan02.html (accessed November 20, 2007).
10 Douglass, 416.

 

 


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