Frederick Douglass Re-emerging As American Icon

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

RALEIGH — During the past 30 to 40 years, historians have revived for Americans the legacy of Frederick Douglass (1818–95). Before then, his accomplishments largely had been swept up, dropped into the dustbin of history, and left out of view. (It reminds me of the saying: “Out of sight, out of mind.”)

Douglass, however, was a genuine “big deal” in his day.

The Maryland native was an escaped slave who penned Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and became a leading abolitionist and reformer. Four other personal accomplishments include editing and owning newspapers; serving as a U.S. ambassador — the first African-American to do so; working as president of The Freedmen’s Bank; and emerging as a well-known 19th-century orator, delivering speeches in the United States and Europe.

In recent days, Douglass’ legacy is emerging as one of an American icon. He said much on various subjects, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, temperance, government, race relations, and freedom.

Recently, I’ve been reading In The Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations From Liberty’s Champion (2012) and decided to select some quotes for Carolina Journal Online readers.
• “One generation cannot safely rest on the achievements of another, and ought not so to rest.”
• “The life of a nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous; for upon these conditions depends the life of its life.”
• “Any man can be brave when there is no danger.”
• “A man is never lost while he still earnestly thinks himself worth saving; and as with a man, so with a nation.”
• “I am certain that there is nothing good, great, or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor, physical or mental, moral or spiritual. A man may, at times, get something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter is equally true in the world of mind.

“Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress; and without conflict, no victory. The man who lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening.”

• “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us [African-Americans]. … Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists: ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! … And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!

“If you see him on his way to school, let him alone — don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him alone! If you see him going to the ballot box, let him alone! — don’t disturb him! If you see him going into a workshop, just let him alone — your interference is doing him positive injury.”
• “My politics in regard to the Negro is simply this: Give him fair play and let him alone, but be sure you give him fair play.”
• “If the American government has been mean, sordid, mischievous, devilish, it is no proof whatever that the constitution of government has been the same.”