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Reflections from History and Faith: The Legacy of Frederick Douglass

By Jeff Olson

America’s story of human freedom and equality is replete with men and women who didn’t aspire for greatness, but whose character, convictions and courage compelled them to take a stand for transcendent and eternal principles of truth and justice. One such man was Frederick Douglass. 

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in a slave cabin near the town of Easton, Maryland 203 years ago this month in February 1818. He was separated from his mother when only a few weeks old and then at around six years of age was left at the plantation of his master by his grandmother. 

At age 15 he became a field hand and experienced most of the horrifying conditions that plagued slaves. Upon his escape from slavery at age 20 he went to New Bedford, MA, having adopted a new surname from the hero of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. 

One hundred eighty years ago, in 1841, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, Douglass gave a speech on what freedom meant to him. The society was so impressed that it hired him to lecture about his experiences as a slave, which then lead to more public speaking and writing opportunities for him.

A self-educated man whose views and convictions stemmed from his experience as a slave and his conversion to Christianity, Douglass stated, “I loved all mankind, slaveholder not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light….I gathered scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street gutters, and washed and dried them, that in moments of leisure I get a word or two of wisdom from them.”

Douglass published his autobiography in 1845, but had to flee to England to prevent his identity as a runaway slave from being revealed. Friends there raised money to buy his freedom and in 1847 he returned to the U.S. and founded an antislavery newspaper, the North Star.

In 1848 he participated in the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, NY. His commanding oratory and statesmanship brought people out of their indifferent attitude toward human life and gave a strong voice to the silent screams of thousands of slaves while also broadening the moral/biblical view of the instrinsic value, dignity and sanctity of human life. This cast a dark shadow over slavery as an evil and a violation of humanity’s right to life and liberty as gifts from God.

Douglass became internationally recognized as an uncompromising abolitionist, indefatigable worker for justice and equal opportunity, and an unyielding defender of women’s rights. He became a trusted advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, a United States Marshal for the District of Columbia, a Recorder of Deeds for Washington, DC, and Minister-General to the Republic of Haiti.

During his lifetime, Frederick Douglas addressed some timeless truths about the human condition and freedom which should command our respect and help guide our steps in the times we live in. “For a man who does not value freedom for himself will never value it for others, or put himself to any inconvenience to gain it for others. 

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…If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate 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….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 measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. 

The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress…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.”

Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895 at his home in Washington, DC. He lived a life of honor, virtue, and integrity which helped to change the course of history through changing the lives of future generations for the better- something he could never have conceived or dreamed of when still a young slave on a plantation on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Attention to his wisdom and an embracement of his legacy are very much needed in our nation today.

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