After the new administration’s first Black History Month event included a general reference to 19th century lion Frederick Douglass as “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more,” Frederick Douglass’s descendants jumped in with their own clarification:
“The President’s comments from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, about Frederick Douglass, were noted and appreciated by us, the Douglass family. In fact, we believe, if he had more time to elaborate, the President would have mentioned the following:
‘Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job …
• Enduring the inhumanity of slavery after being born heir to anguish and exploitation but still managing to become a force for solace and liberty when America needed it most,
• Recognizing that knowledge was his pathway to freedom at such a tender age,
• Teaching himself to read and write and becoming one of the country’s most eloquent spokespersons,
• Standing up to his overseer to say that ‘I am a man!’
• Risking life and limb by escaping the abhorrent institution,
• Composing the Narrative of his life and helping to expose slavery for the crime against humankind that it is,
• Persuading the American public and Abraham Lincoln that we are all equal and deserving of the right to live free,
• Establishing the North Star newspaper when there was very little in the way of navigation or hope for the millions of enslaved persons,
• Supporting the rights of women when few men of such importance endeavored to do so,
• Arguing against unfair U.S. immigration restrictions,
• Understanding that racism in America is part of our ‘diseased imagination,’
• Recruiting his sons — who were born free — to fight in the war to end the enslavement of other African Americans,
• Being appointed the first black U.S. Marshal by President Rutherford B. Hayes,
• Being appointed U.S. Minister to Haiti by President Benjamin Harrison,
• Serving as a compelling role model for all Americans for nearly two centuries.”
They concluded: “Like the President, we use the present tense when referencing Douglass’s accomplishments because his spirit and legacy are still very much alive, not just during Black History Month, but every month.”
A similar response could have been prepared just a few days later when the Department of Education shared a quote by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois that misspelled his name. We may not be able to react to every mistake or omission made about black or Latino or Asian American or Native American or immigrant or women’s history. But we can certainly make sure our children know the correct and full truth. We can make sure they know W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the first great Black Civil Rights and intellectual leaders.
He was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University and a founding leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and founding editor of its journal The Crisis. He wrote many influential books and articles, including the classic “The Souls of Black Folk,” and remained a tireless crusader for the rights of black people around the world until his death in Ghana at age 95 on Aug. 28, 1963, the same day as the March on Washington. We can also make sure we know and teach our children not just who Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois are, but some of the lessons they taught us.
In a time when lies about nonexistent widespread voter fraud threaten to reinforce and escalate a new era of targeted and pernicious voter suppression, we can reread this warning from “The Souls of Black Folk”: “Away with the black man’s ballot, by force or fraud, — and behold the suicide of a race! … The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defense, — else what shall save us from a second slavery?”
In a time where fears about unprecedented abuses of power are being matched by record-setting mass displays of nonviolent resistance, we can remember what Frederick Douglass said in 1857: “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. 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. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”
This is a time for struggle for the soul and future of our nation. It is not a time to be silenced by fear or deadly apathy. It is a time for truth and courage. Only the truth will set us free.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.