Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was one of the most intriguing and powerful figures of the American freedom movement. When recently visiting his home and historical site in the Anacostia Heights area of Washington, D.C., I was once again inspired by his life and invigorated by the challenging and continuing need to be involved in the struggle for civil rights.
We must continually agitate against all oppression and exclusion and provide representation for those who are not enjoying the full fruits of the American experience.
Today’s inclusion challenges of conservative backlash, tea party insanity, plutocratic control of community assets and liberal paternalism pale in the face of the atrocities of slavery and its brutal aftermath that Frederick Douglass and his generation faced. Nevertheless, the need for agitation on behalf of the underrepresented remains. Unfortunately, we live in an age when monetary success and/or political access is often the measure rather than contribution to the freedom movement. It is unconscionable that so many are merely concerned about their own standing rather than using their positions to open doors for others.
One of the most compelling parts of the Douglass story is when he decided, as a teenager, to risk fighting back by wrestling his slave master oppressor in the most respectful way possible. He later said that this event empowered him throughout his life.
Oppression remains in the area of economic and educational access for far too many as we fight the historical legacy of exclusion. When Douglass fought back against his oppressor, it was against the law for a slave to strike back at a slave owner/handler. He could have been publicly whipped, killed or sold to an even more oppressive slave handler. The question for today’s freedom advocate is whether we are willing to risk our advantaged position to advocate for those who are less fortunate?
Those of us who sit on councils and boards or have positions of authority yet who do not respectfully but forcefully stand against modern oppression and/or exclusion are not living up to the legacy of Frederick Douglass. While it is now legal to wrestle against these elements, it may be unpopular or culturally and politically hazardous to provide this type of advocacy. One may be labeled a radical, an outlier or just not ready for polite company.
This type of agitation may cause the loss of a seat at the table of influence or may diminish the potentially intoxicating standing within elite society. Nevertheless, to not agitate for justice diminishes the legacy of effort by those who previously struggled so that this generation would have more access. It is worth the risk to advocate, yes agitate, in the continuing struggle for justice.
There are far too many with underrepresented or allied backgrounds who are just so glad to be included themselves, they do not fight back against powers that are limiting others from access. There are still oppressive elements that need to be wrestled. For instance, when political leaders do not adequately support efforts that affect the poor or underrepresented community, or when philanthropic entities make decisions on how funding will be disseminated related to community projects without grassroots input, this constitutes a form of oppression that needs to be wrestled.
Frederick Douglass said it best; “[i]f there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. … (there) must be a struggle.”
This is a call for proponents of justice to stand up against repression and exclusion in any form and to be willing to suffer loss in the name of inclusion. We need allies for justice today like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass’ contemporary, who advocated that full access would only be achieved through uncompromising “moral suasion.” When speaking of freedom he said, “I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch.” Rather than merely laud the efforts of greats such as Douglass and Garrison, we should be willing to emulate their contribution within the modern context, even if it comes at the price of the forfeiture of personal standing and status.
To those of us who now enjoy the access privileges that have been wrought through the efforts of heroes who risked life and limb, Frederick Douglass last public words, spoken to a young man seeking significance, ring true — Agitate, Agitate, Agitate.
David M. Fryson, a lawyer, pastor and Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for West Virginia University, is a Gazette contributing columnist.