Stories to Live by

January 16, 2022

Frederick Douglass

In 1864, Frederick Douglass, the great orator and leading advocate for African-American freedom, took the stage to address abolition advocates. In his address entitled, “The Mission of the War,” Mr. Douglass argued that although the war had begun with the single hope of maintaining the Union, it had now taken on the cause of ending slavery. He found Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and his brief speech at Gettysburg heartening evidence that the President understood that the purpose of the war had broadened. Lincoln’s statement in the Gettysburg Address announced the beginning of a new narrative for the United States:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –“

Douglass believed, as Lincoln had come to believe, that the United States after the Civil War would build a new story incorporating African-Americans in the story of freedom. He put it this way, “What we now want is a country—a free country—a country not saddened by the footprints of a single slave—and nowhere cursed by the presence of a slaveholder. We want a country which shall not brand the Declaration of Independence as a lie. We want a country whose fundamental institutions we can proudly defend before the highest intelligence and civilization of the age. Hitherto we have opposed European scorn of our slavery with a blush of shame as our best defense. We now want a country in which the obligations of patriotism shall not conflict with fidelity to justice and liberty.”

The Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) in the United States did begin to create a new narrative that Mr. Douglass, and millions of others so wanted to see. The Congress of the United States enacted the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution – ending slavery, making African-American citizenship and granting them the right to vote. To the surprise of many Americans, African Americans exercised the right to vote by voting in the hundreds of thousands and electing representatives and senators that came from their communities. The Freedman’s Bureau opened schools throughout the South that began the process of educating the children of former slaves. In the 1870s there was genuine hope for a new America. (This period was one of the least examined in high schools and colleges throughout the 20th century.) 

That hope was dashed by former Confederate soldiers, who organized the Ku Klux Klan and through violence and terror, ended America’s new experiment by 1877. (It is a more complex discussion as the North, through the imposition of Federal troops under U.S. Grant attempted to defend African-American freedom, but by 1877, weary of the actual war and then the long conflict that followed, withdrew the troops.)  Between 1877 and 1900, Southern politicians used legal schemes to introduce segregation in the South, evade the new amendments, and relegate African-Americans to a new form of bondage. It is a period in our history that is both difficult to read about and understand.  It is a period we should know well.

For the next 85 years African Americans endured lynching and terror throughout the country. They attended segregated schools, lived in segregated housing, and experienced discrimination consistently. The freedoms that were won from 1865 to 1877 were lost. The new narrative that Mr. Douglass most hoped for never came to be.

We require students to take history because we believe that our citizens should share a common understanding of our founding and the events that have helped build our community.  We have to admit that our “stories” have often presented narratives that are simply not true. Our stories should honor our past, but they should also help us envision a future that indeed flows out of the documents and commitments that founded this country. As Mr. Douglass noted, “We now want a country in which the obligations of patriotism shall not conflict with fidelity to justice and liberty.”

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Today in 2022 we honor a man who, I believe, most honored America’s commitment to freedom and dignity and called America to a different future. The Dream and narrative he constructed is one that we should strive for as we seek to create a society as Lincoln believed was “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As you consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contribution to American history may you find these familiar words not only inspirational, but a picture of the society that we wish to create for our future.

Excerpts from The March on Washington (I Have a Dream) Speech – 1963. (Read full text here)

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

. . .

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!”