Yale's David Blight says the Right is co-opting Frederick Douglass

Historians in the News
tags: Black History Month, Black History



David W. Blight, a professor of history at Yale, is the author of the forthcoming book “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.”

... In “Self-Made Man,” a new book published by the Cato Institute, the lawyer Timothy Sandefur argues that [Frederick] Douglass’s essential legacy lies in his advocacy of liberty, individualism and private property and free enterprise. The radical abolitionist who risked all to use words and politics to free an entire people from slavery was, to Mr. Sandefur, only “a radical for individualism” and never concerned with “the interests of the collective.”

To believe that, one has to ignore most of Douglass’s career, especially his life as an abolitionist, his ferocious attacks on the poison of racism and his brilliant analysis of how lynching emerged from the evils of white supremacy. Douglass believed that freedom was safe only within the state and under law.

Douglass did preach self-reliance for his fellow blacks: He argued that the freed slaves should be given their rights, protected and then “let alone.” But he never employed that “let alone” dictum without also demanding “fair play,” and security against terror and discrimination. Conservatives have cherry-picked his words to advance their narrow visions of libertarianism.

Douglass, the greatest American abolitionist, also happened to be a Republican in a century when that party stood for using government to free people. The right’s effort to get right with Douglass is born of sincere beliefs but also shows a movement’s need for a famous black voice. Were he alive, Douglass would most likely laugh, and warmly welcome the debate.

At the unveiling ceremony for the statue of Douglass in the United States Capitol in 2013, congressional Republicans proudly wore large buttons that read, “Frederick Douglass Was a Republican.” Douglass’s descendants who were there, as well as scholars like me with, shall we say, different training, smiled and endured....

Douglass’s understanding of power could never confine him to advocacy of individualism alone.

Read entire article at NYT

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