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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Frederick Douglass Links

Douglass’ speeches, letters and books

The Frederick Douglass Papers Edition — complete works, gathered by the Institute for American Thought — contains most of Douglass’ major speeches

Project Gutenberg:
Collected Articles of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass on Reconstruction (audio reading)
My Bondage and My Freedom
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Documenting the American South: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress

General information sites

National Park Service:
Cedar Hill (Douglass' last home)
Frederick Douglass Virtual Museum

Frederick Douglass Resource Center (Rochester, NY)

Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress — includes searchable archive of correspondence, photographs, etc.

Frederick Douglass Project at the University of Rochester

Frederick Douglass Book Prize (The Gilder Lehman Institute for American History)

Fan sites and Douglass impersonator sites and clips

Script for a play about Douglass and major abolitionist figures

Actor Fred Morsell
Performance clips
from Morsell

The Spirit of Frederick Douglass — Michael E. Crutcher, Sr.

Phil Darius Wallace

Bill Grimmette – Clips from 2003 performance at Chautauqua 2003 on the Germantown Campus, Montgomery College

Modern-day opinions of Douglass
(Links may eventually go dead.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why Frederick Douglass?

It’s often been said that Martin Luther King, Jr., was the conscience of America. But if I may be so bold, King, as good as he was, stood on the shoulders of a giant.

Frederick Douglass, born a slave as Frederick Bailey in eastern Maryland, escaped from slavery and became the greatest abolitionist and civil rights advocate of the 19th century. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is still hailed as the most important American slave memoir. Douglass is part of the “big three” of the Civil War era, with Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.

Like Grant, Douglass is a hero of mine because of his dogged determination. Once he first got a taste of knowledge, he never let it go. A kindly wife of a slave owner started teaching him to read the Bible. The husband was outraged, but Douglass on the sly continued to learn to read both on his own and with the help of other boys. The awakening of his mind was the path to his freedom. He studied oratory, and his speeches are among the finest ones ever given in this land. His prose was good, so much so that whites thought that William Lloyd Garrison or someone else had written his Narrative.

Douglass is a hero because he stands for clarity of understanding, the very antithesis of white guilt over what was done—horribly so—to blacks. He told whites to basically leave blacks alone and let them grow on their own. What a better place this country would have been had Douglass’ words been taken to heart. (See his April 1865 speech
What the Black Man Wants.) Frederick Douglass is one of the biggest reasons why I am so concerned about race in America, and why I believe that guilty whites should stop acting so blasted guilty and start letting black men and women help themselves. And blacks, for that matter, should own up to the fact that they can be just as racist as whites.

Mainly, though, Douglass is my hero because he stands for clarity. He stands as one of the greatest American examples of what can happen when a mind is unlocked. He stands as a different kind of self-made man: the perpetual student. I don't mean to suggest that Douglass languished in the halls of acedemia without ever venturing outside. Rather, Douglass never stopped learning, never stopped improving himself. Ultimately, he recognized that the abolition of slavery was just the beginning of the transformation of blacks in America into citizens. Douglass, sharp as a tack, knew that once slavery was gone, then learning, books, schools, citizenship, etc. needed to follow.

Douglass wrote/said the following, and actor Fred Morsell spotlights these on his web site:
  • “I took advantage of the knowledge of the alphabet Miss Sophia gave me and I went to my neighborhood friends, and with their help I learned how to read.”

  • “Learning the alphabet gave me the key to reading; I took that key and, with a little help from my friends, learned how to read, thus becoming a free man in my mind.”

  • “Through my many speeches about justice, and through my newspaper and other writings, I discovered that the power of the word is the best means to bring about permanent positive changes, both for myself and others.”
I firmly believe it would break Douglass’ heart to behold the state of blacks in America today, especially the Jeremiah Wrights and Jessie Jacksons and etc. who place all blame on whites and rage at whites continually while black illiteracy, crime, incarceration, shootings, joblessness and anger are all sky-high. Douglass would despair at the thought of black children refusing to excel in school because doing so is “acting white.” (“Acting Asian” has gained some currently lately, too.)

Fred Morsell, who I’ve seen in person, does a phenomenal impersonation of Douglass. Morsell took up the challenge of fighting gangs and drugs by impersonating Douglass to spread the great agitator’s message of education, self-reliance and love of self. He’s done well over 500 performances all over the country since 1990. If you ever get the chance to see his act (as I did in 2007), don’t miss it! See the Douglass Today section on Morsell and other performers who assume the role of Douglass.

Here is a snippet of Morsell performing one of Douglass’ greatest speeches, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro,” which Douglass originally gave on July 5, 1852. (Yes, the choice of date was significant.)

Douglass’ message today isn’t just for black Americans, but it is more important than ever for black Americans to heed his words. Frederick Douglass, you’re my hero. And so are you, Fred Morsell, as one of those who keeps his memory alive.

And that’s what this site is about.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Favorite quotes

The following are some of his greatest quotes, taken from his three autobiographies, speeches and letters.

25) “It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of slavery. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”
— From the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He’s referring to the day when he, at 16 years old, beat the snot out of his master Covey, who had a carefully protected reputation as a “n*gger breaker.”

24) “The silver trump of freedom has roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to eternal wakefulness. It was heard in every sound, and seen in everything.”
— From the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

23) “Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done.”

22) “What is possible for me is possible for you.”

21) “Some men know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it.”
— Blessings of Liberty and Education, Manassas, Va., 1894

20) “It is a frequent and favorite device of an indefensible cause to misstate and pervert the views of those who advocate a good cause.”
— The Civil Rights Case, 1883

19) “I know of no soil better adapted to the growth of reform than American soil. I know of no country where the conditions for affecting great changes in the settled order of things, for the development of right ideas of liberty and humanity, are more favorable than here in these United States.”
— Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, 1857

18) “To make a contented slave it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken the moral and mental vision and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason.”
— from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

17) “One by one I have seen obstacles removed, errors corrected, prejudices softened, proscriptions relinquished, and my people advancing in all the elements that go to make up the sum of the general welfare. And I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty and humanity will ultimately prevail.”
— The Race Problem, 1890

16) “To [President and General Ulysses S. Grant] more than any other man the negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indian a humane policy. In the matter of the protection of the freedman from violence his moral courage surpassed that of his party; hence his place as its head was given to timid men, and the country was allowed to drift, instead of stemming the current with stalwart arms.”
— Frederick Douglass Papers, quoted in President Grant Reconsidered by Frank Scaturro

15) “Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.”

14) “A little learning, indeed, may be a dangerous thing, but the want of learning is a calamity to any people.”

13) “Without education he lives within the narrow, dark and grimy walls of ignorance. … Education, on the other hand, means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free. To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature. It is easy to deny them the means of freedom and the rightful pursuit of happiness and to defeat the very end of their being.”
— Blessings of Liberty and Education, Manassas, Va., 1894

12) “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
—1860 speech in Boston

11) “Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down.”
— 1860 speech in Boston

10) “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
— Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies, 1857

9) “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.”
— Speech on the twenty-fourth anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., April 1886

8) “Everybody has asked the question… ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer since the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.”
— What the Black Man Wants, 1865

7) “Few evils are less acceptable to the force of reason, or more tenacious of life and power, than a long-standing prejudice.”
— The Color Line, 1881

6) “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is constant victim.”
— What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, July 5, 1852

5) “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”
— April 14, 1876 speech about Lincoln

4) “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.”
— Speech on the 24th anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia, April 1886

3) “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”
— Civil Rights Mass Meeting, 1883

2) “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
— Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies, 1857

1) “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”
— Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies, 1857

Meeting a hero

I wrote this in 2007 for a now-defunct political blog, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision. I saw actor Fred Morsell portray Frederick Douglass at the St. Louis Old Courthouse as part of city-wide events.
(Douglass (left) as he appeared in about middle age, and Morsell today. Douglass' picture is from the Library of Congress, and Morsell's is from his web site.)

March 7, 2007
Today, I met one of my heroes in the flesh.

Well, sort of.

As some of you may know, one of my heroes is Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and fighter for civil rights. Over lunch today, I watched actor Fred Morsell portray Douglass in a one-man presentation at St. Louis’ Old Courthouse as part of the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision.

Morsell gave what was undoubtedly a typical speech for Douglass, telling the story of his early life as a slave. It was an amazingly powerful performance: Convincing, gut-wrenching, funny, sober, awe-inspiring, transforming, beautiful… I hated having to return to work before he was finished.

Morsell has been portraying Douglass since 1988. Last year I read William McFeely’s unsatisfying biography on the famed abolitionist, but Morsell gives a living biography of Douglass.

WOW! What a performance!

If you ever get a chance to see him perform as Douglass, you’re in for a real treat — and something that will stick with you for a long time. (It’s very similar to Hal Holbrook’s turns as Mark Twain, and Sam Waterston’s as Abraham Lincoln.)