The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives say Frederick Douglass was optimistic about America. His words say something different.

Are the words of a 19th-century abolitionist relevant to America today?

(Washington Post photo illustration; Getty Images, Associated Press)

About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Sign up for the newsletter.

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick triggered a historical debate when he tweeted a video montage on July 4 that illustrated the history of legal and extralegal injustices against black Americans, set against a backdrop of fireworks and scrolling phrases from the U.S. Constitution. Kaepernick took his followers on a sobering visual tour of enslavement, Klan intimidation, lynching, voter disenfranchisement and police violence, as James Earl Jones recited Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 address, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.”

Kaepernick’s tweet offered a clear political challenge: To cut at the root of anti-black racism today, we must first recognize its insidious connection to enslavement and other historical forms of injustice against black Americans. The post generated more than 30,000 comments as supporters and critics alike debated his interpretation of Douglass’s words and their relevance to systemic forms of racism in the United States today.

One notable reaction came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex).

Cruz accused Kaepernick of taking Douglass, who was escaped from slavery, out of context, arguing that his speech focused on the injustice of slavery alone. He noted that the abolitionist took an optimistic tone, saying that “notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country.”

“Douglass was not anti-American,” Cruz tweeted. “He was, rightly and passionately, anti-slavery.”

Cruz’s selective reading of the illustrious freedom fighter is emblematic of the modern conservative co-optation of Douglass and other civil rights leaders’ radical challenges to white supremacy. His call for deeper contextual consideration of Douglass’s words is welcome, but probably not for the reason Cruz intends. Douglass’s major public remarks during the last years of his life — the 1890s — show that Cruz dramatically overstates his optimism that the United States will ever be willing to repair the generational damage it has inflicted on black people.

On Oct. 21, 1890, 25 years after legal emancipation, Douglass delivered his “The Race Problem” speech before the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. Implicitly responding to arguments that discrimination against black Americans was dissolved with the Union’s victory in the Civil War, Douglass asserted, “Now that the Union is no longer in danger, now that the North and South are no longer enemies … it seems that the negro is to lose by their sectional harmony and good will all the rights and privileges that he gained by their former bitter enmity. … The United States Government made the negro a citizen, will it protect him as a citizen?”

Three years later at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Douglass addressed an audience of more than 1,500 attendees: “Though [slavery] is now gone, its asserted spirit remains,” he said, and “the colored people of the United States have lost ground and have met with increased and galling resistance since the war of the rebellion.”

Then, on Jan. 9, 1894, Douglass offered one of his final public addresses. In his “Lessons of the Hour” talk, Douglass admits he has “waited patiently but anxiously to see the end of the epidemic of mob law and persecution now prevailing at the South, but the indications are not hopeful.”

His words reflect a clear skepticism about the country’s ability to change its relationship with black Americans: “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”

The ugly facts before Douglass in 1894 were the proliferation of Black Codes, lynch mobs and Jim Crow laws in the South that restricted black Americans’ freedom and threatened their very existence. Legal restrictions were put in place to limit their ability to vote, marry and travel. The American institutions that should have protected their new constitutional freedoms were proving unreliable. In 1883, for instance, the Supreme Court had capitulated to “states’ rights” by striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in an 8-to-1 decision. The Republican Party, Douglass said, had become “a party of money rather than a party of morals, a party of things rather than a party of humanity and justice.”

The oppression of black Americans, he concluded, was multifaceted. Racial injustice did not come in the form of enslavement alone.

The race problem in the United States, he said, “cannot be solved by keeping the negro poor, degraded, ignorant, half-starved … it cannot be solved by keeping the wages of the laborer back by fraud … It cannot be done by ballot-box stuffing, by falsifying election returns, or by confusing the negro voter by cunning devices … it cannot be done by repealing all federal laws enacted to secure honest elections …”

Contemporary forms of anti-black racism in the U.S. are similarly multifaceted: Voter suppression, police violence, employment discrimination, residential segregation, unequal access to education, health care and land. Douglass’s analysis during the final decade of his life is startlingly relevant today.

History is not fixed in the past. History only exists in relation to our current moment. Just as anti-Blackness did not wither away with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, it persists today because we white people living in the United States have not seriously dealt with Douglass’s forceful challenge in 1894: “Put away your race prejudices. … Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest.”

More from About US:

America’s nonviolent civil rights movement was considered uncivil by critics at the time

Her ancestors were enslaved in the U.S. Now a Trump decision could lead to her deportation to Africa.

Descendants of final slave ship voyage hope for revival of historic Africatown

America’s long and painful history of domestic terrorism against racial and religious minorities