Happy birthday, Frederick Douglass
February 27, 2007
As Black History Month comes to a close, let's take a moment to honor Frederick Douglass, the father of the civil rights movement and the most influential black American of the 19th century. His story not only inspires pride among black Americans but also illuminates the resilience of the human spirit.
Born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey (he later changed his last name to Douglass) on a Maryland plantation on Feb. 14, 1817, Douglass became one of the nation's most effective anti-slavery activists.
Although largely self-educated, he opened doors that were traditionally closed to black Americans. His talents as a writer and orator won him audiences with international leaders, and he served as an adviser both to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes.
Douglass learned to read and write despite stringent laws forbidding slave literacy, and he escaped from slavery after defying a well-known "slave breaker" who whipped him regularly.
Douglass moved north and eventually began speaking out against slavery. He became attached to the abolitionist movement after a speech at an 1841 meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society created a sensation. Audiences were amazed at the intelligence and eloquence of a formerly enslaved black man. His personal qualities confounded their expectations even as his arguments persuaded their minds.
Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison heard that speech and asked Douglass to join his group, the American Anti-Slavery Society. For the next two decades, Douglass assumed the role as the group's celebrity speaker.
While he ceaselessly pushed to end slavery, he also advocated vocational training for freed blacks and spoke up for women's rights. In 1847, Douglass published his own abolitionist newspaper called the North Star, both to distinguish himself from Garrison's group and to establish a model for African-Americans to plead the anti-slavery case.
Later he published "Douglass' Monthly Magazine" and wrote a novel called "The Heroic Slave." He also wrote two autobiographies that were later combined in a third, "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass."
During the Civil War, Douglass persuaded Lincoln to allow black soldiers to fight and became active in recruiting them. He was instrumental in organizing the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Negro Regiments.
After the war, Douglass pushed for robust Reconstruction programs and urged the nation to accept the civil and moral responsibility of helping African-Americans become full citizens.
President Hayes appointed him to several government positions, including consul-general to the Republic of Haiti.
Douglass provoked the anger of many whites, who resented his abolitionist activities as well as his high-level appointments.
But in his later years, Douglass also upset many African-Americans for his full-throated support of the American system. Despite his anti-slavery militancy and belief in the threat of force, Douglass strongly condemned those advocating radical or violent solutions to the nation's racial problems.
When Carter G. Woodson established Black History Week in 1926, he chose to insert it into February because both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were born in that short, cold month.
Nearly two centuries after his birth, Douglass remains a deserving icon of black history.
Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of the Chicago-based In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com), and a contributing writer to the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.