I make no pretension to patriotism. So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. It is righteousness that exalteth a nation while sin is a reproach to any people.
—Frederick Douglass – Love Of Man, Love Of God, Love Of Country (1847)
13 years before the United States of America was plunged into a long and bloody Civil War from which over 600,000 would be slaughtered beneath the nation’s original sin, Frederick Douglass poured from his heart the core of patriotism. It is one of the most jolting, irreverent pieces of kick-ass writing scratched by human hand. It is the essence of the American horror, the dream; the senseless passion that arises from the heart of a man yearning to breathe free under the yoke of a hypocritical system ironically built on the concept of the word. It runs some 4,100 words and slams into your skull like a battering ram. It is as beautiful a rebuke and demand on this country as I have ever read anywhere by anyone.
It is those words that I come to time and again when confronted with the anguish of the African-American experience in this country, when it was barely possible for a black man to consider such things, much less formulate them into ideology and then push them, no, regurgitate them onto paper; a force of nature, a torrent, a battle cry. Because it is in Douglass’ experience which preludes a century of sheer madness passed along by law and religion and patriotism and the institutionalized discrimination bound by violence and destruction of men, women and children, eradicated legally and physically from the dream; the American promise of a vain, slave-owning genius by the name of Thomas Jefferson, who had the gall to write, even as he owned fellow human beings, about God having created all of us as equals to gain the liberty of revolution.
It was a revolution that did not include all, hardly; many of whom had lost their sons defeating the world’s most powerful military. Across fields of destruction, they fought until the land was indeed no longer under rule, in turn, trading one tyranny for another.
And still a century would nearly pass before the Emancipation Proclamation and the bloodiest of wars, the murder of a president and another hundred years of degradation. All the while Americans could have heeded the call of Douglass that begins as if a phoenix rising; “I like radical measures, whether adopted by Abolitionists or slaveholders. I do not know but I like them better when adopted by the latter. Hence I look with pleasure upon movements.”
Ah, yes, “movements,” wryly states its author, who understood it was the “slaveholder” who would carry his fate—Jefferson’s dream, perhaps?—or a movement centuries away, when it would be no longer about the “white man” tossing crumbs, but the black man pushing forth on the words of a movement, on the words of A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, T.R.M. Howard, Whitney Young, James Farmer, John Lewis, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, Esau Jenkins, Minnijean Brown, Robert F. Williams, Hartman Turnbow, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, Charles McDew, Bernard Lafayette, Charles Jones, Lonnie King, Julian Bond, Hosea Williams, Stokely Carmichael, James Meredith, Raylawni Branch, Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong, James Bevel, Malcolm X, and a preacher’s son from Atlanta, Georgia, by the name of Martin Luther King Jr.
It was the civil rights movement that stretched from Birmingham to Tulsa, Anniston to Tallahassee, all through the South and up into Chicago and many of the inner cities of the North, which gets little press when it comes to abject bigotry, but should not. And it is the brave voices, echoes of Douglass pondering aloud exactly what it means to be free, to seek liberty and a pursuit of happiness, to be a man; one man, one race, all races, all creeds underlining Jefferson’s great promise.
Freedom Riders and boycotts, lynchings and marchings, cops and courts, corruption and press, politics and anger, and peace, voting and fighting…and then, one day, July 2, 1964; 100 years after the bloody Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s shuttering sentences that scrambled up Jefferson. The gangly man in the stovepipe hat and the high-pitched voice stood on the battlefield of Gettysburg and dared measure “the great task remaining before us.” Yes, and what of that task, asked of his 19th predecessor, one Lyndon Baines Johnson, who wrangled the difficult votes to declare rights to humanity and liberty and all the haughty talk of freedom.
Oh, it would take two more sweeping acts of Congress; one for voting rights in 1965 and one for housing rights in 1968, as if we could not, would not, goddamn us all, should not get this right after so many years and bloodshed and speeches—oh, those speeches—the fact that a man would be forced to “dream” that all Americans “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—not realize, but dream.
I was not yet two years old when MLK stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, built for a man who a century before toiled at the behest of Frederick Douglass to set the African-American slave free and the country aflame, and ask for the right to be recognized as a citizen of these United States. It is hard to believe this could take place in my lifetime; not 100 years ago, but within the American Century.
I am 51 now. I write today because of men like King and Douglass, who in their prescience made a Declaration of Independence a living, breathing descendent of justice.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus” and “Y.”