It’s February! That can only mean that Punxsutawney Phil is in the news. Our resident rodent prognosticated that, due to the clear, sunny conditions around his famous tree stump last Thursday, spring is still a massive six weeks away, rather than a mere month and a half if the day had been overcast. We’ll leave that for school kids to ponder. It is also the month of my sister’s birthday, which is an event she places right up there with the moon landing. But, that is a family matter and not your burden to bear.
The real news is that this is National Black History month. I’ve written tributes to both the celebrated and the thousands of anonymous foot soldiers, heroes all, of the civil rights movement in past columns. Today, I’d like readers to indulge me in yet another history themed column. It wasn’t my intent to do so. I have a list of current events to get to, but this column is directed at our new president, trying to help clear up the cache of confusions he seems have.
Mr. Trump, in what seemed like an attempt to honor African Americans, spoke of the usual suspects including Frederick Douglass, the former slave, turned activist, politician, orator, and author, to name just a smattering of his accomplishments. Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to know any of this. Unless you are in elementary school just learning about our history, it is likely Frederick Douglass’s name and striking image are a part of your knowledge base. Mr. Trump seems to think Douglass is still alive, speaking of him in the present perfect tense (“somebody who’s done an amazing job”) and that his heroics have been shrouded all these years (“and is being more and more recognized”).
Douglass lived from 1818 until 1895, dying at 77 years old–he would be celebrating his 199th birthday this month if Mr. Trump’s grammar were correct. He has been an icon of the Civil War era abolitionist movement since during his own lifetime. He was a respected council to presidents and wrote three autobiographies about his amazing life. He advocated for women’s rights, Native American rights, and was elected to public office before Jim Crow laws put an end to any of that sort of thing. He’s been recognized and heralded for nearly 200 years! He’s not an emerging, future star who just won a talent show and is finally “being recognized more and more.”
I wish Frederick Douglass were still alive. We could use his considerable talents in today’s world. He was a community organizer, ala Barack Obama. He was an historical writer, ala Doris Kearns Goodwin. He advised President Lincoln about the status of the slave population, offering solutions, ala Martin Luther King, Jr. working with JFK. He was a strong orator and I’ll use former President Obama and Dr. King as modern examples again. In addition to the causes he championed mentioned above, he spoke out for universal suffrage, free public education, and public land management; all this plus endlessly shouting the morality of abolishing slavery from the rooftops.
Every one of these issues is still in need of attention today. Yes, slavery as he knew it is gone, but the willingness of some to create a culture of second-class citizens is still our onus today.
Ultimately, Frederick Douglass was an agitator. His method was to keep the issues he held dear front and center in the public conscious. I can name agitators on both ends of the political spectrum. Steve Bannon, the president’s close advisor is one. Others are Rev. Jessie Jackson, and Rev. Al Sharpton. The new president himself could be included in a list of agitators. These men have different agendas and whether you agree with their chosen causes or not, their methods to keep issues alive are similar.
Just two months before Douglass’s death a young man came to the sage wanting to tap his wisdom on how a good life should be lived. The young man got this advice: “Agitate, agitate, agitate.” Frederick Douglass would fit right in with today’s protesters.
Frederick Douglass was loud, assertive, tirelessly active, and most admirably a devoted scholar. Mr. Douglass got to Dr. King’s spiritual mountaintop a hundred years before the peaceful, protesting pastor. Just like Dr. King, Mr. Douglass saw the far side of the mountain. From their visions, they both learned and understood the importance of working hand-in-hand, and the critical need to strive to make the United States a country of equals.
We celebrate National Black History month not only to honor the people and world enhancing contributions from African American culture. We also take time to remember that all of us have not yet seen the other side of the mountain. The celebration is a gentle awakening, a bit of agitation, that in order to bring the visions of these two men to fruition, there is still work to be done.