Remembering black history: Racism, slavery and Frederick Douglass

Isaac Martin, Political Contributor

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When President Barack Obama took the oath of office eight years ago, it was widely hailed as a great symbol of how far we have come as a nation with respect to race relations. Yet, today a man who once hesitated to denounce the Ku Klux Klan now stands in the Oval Office.

It certainly begs questions: Has something changed in the past eight years? Are we now a racist country? Have we always been a prejudiced people?

Black history matters

There is no better time to ponder and discuss these questions than February, Black History Month. During this month, we set aside time to celebrate the achievements and reflect on the past of our African American brothers and sisters.  

Over the next four weeks, I invite you to join me in examining critical questions regarding race and our lives today. As we answer these important questions, we will also hear from prominent African Americans of the past and present.

The Constitution: Racism enshrined?

Many today feel America is an inherently racist nation, pointing no further than our own Constitution as evidence. Why did the Constitution say that a black person is worth three-fifths of a white person, unless it was written by racists? To answer that question, we must look to one of the most prominent historical voices on race: Frederick Douglass.

From former slave to friend of presidents

Born and raised as a slave in Maryland, Douglass escaped to New York in 1838 at the age of 20. Three years after his escape, he delivered a powerful anti-slavery speech and was promptly hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.

A tireless worker and brilliant orator, Douglass advised President Abraham Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation. Following the Civil War, his relentless work ethic and invaluable perspective won him posts in four out of the next six presidential administrations.

The Constitution: Pro-slavery or anti-slavery?    

Having taught himself to read at an early age, Douglass was well-read, particularly when it came to the beginning of our country. Did he believe the Constitution was a racist document advancing slavery? The answer is yes . . . and no. This is what Douglass had to say about the Constitution in his book “My Bondage and My Freedom”:

“I was, on the anti-slavery question . . . fully committed to [the] doctrine touching the pro-slavery character of the Constitution . . . I advocated it with pen and tongue, according to the best of my ability . . . [u]pon a reconsideration of the whole subject, I became convinced . . .that the Constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery but, on the contrary, it is in its letter and spirit an anti-slavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence as the supreme law of the land.”

How could Douglass pen such words? Had he missed the Three-Fifths Compromise? No, Frederick did not miss it. Rather, when he examined the debates surrounding the adoption of the Constitution, he discovered that the clause was actually anti-slavery.

In the Constitution, a congressional representative was apportioned for every 30,000 citizens of a state. During the Constitutional Convention, it became clear that certain southern states were going to game the system by keeping their slaves in subjugation, yet counting them as voting citizens. In states like South Carolina, where a quarter of the population was slaves, this would have greatly boosted slaveholder’s clout in Congress.

The anti-slavery delegates from the North howled, stating that if South Carolina would treat these poor people like property and count them as citizens, then Massachusetts and other Northern states would count their chickens and cows as voters, too. After much wrangling, the Three-Fifths Compromise was born — not as a pro-slavery victory, but as a blow to the forces of racism.

Caution: The truth is closer than it appears

Our country has suffered much from the blight of slavery, but it isn’t inseparable from our national DNA. From the beginning, there have been those who desire to restrict liberty and restrain justice. Indeed, as we will see next week, the KKK was conceived by a major political party (can you guess which?) interested only in consolidating its own power.

If we are to be successful in our fight against modern-day prejudice, regardless of the form it takes and whom it may be perpetuated against, we must learn from Frederick Douglass. We must do the things he did.

We must study well.

We must work hard.

We must speak the truth.