The good news is that President Donald Trump opened Black History Month by mentioning the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The bad news is he doesn’t seem to realize he’s dead. Speaking at a Black History Month event on Wednesday, Trump’s comments suggested he thought Douglass was alive. Douglass was born into slavery around 1818 and died in 1895. We set the record straight with our guest, Kenneth Morris Jr., great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, and feature an excerpt of James Earl Jones reading one of his most famous speeches, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.”
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with the good news that President Donald Trump opened Black History Month by mentioning the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The bad news is he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s dead. This is Donald Trump speaking at the Black History Month event at the White House on Wednesday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.
AMY GOODMAN: Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1818. He died in 1895. Trump’s comments about Douglass led to follow-up questions from reporters for White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
REPORTER: It’s about Frederick Douglass being recognized more and more. Do you have any idea what specifically he was referring to?
PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Well, I think there’s contributions—I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made. And I think, through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.
AMY GOODMAN: In a minute, we’ll set the record straight when we’re joined by the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass. But first, let’s turn to the words of Douglass himself. On July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York, Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” He was addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. This is an excerpt of James Earl Jones reading the historic address during a performance of Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States.
JAMES EARL JONES: [reading Frederick Douglass] It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, Kenneth Morris Jr. He’s also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington and the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. Kenneth Morris Jr. joins us from Irvine, California.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Your thoughts on Donald Trump’s words, the president of the United States, about your great-great-great-grandfather?
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Well, I’m in California, so when I woke up and my phone was ringing off of the hook and I heard what he had said, my first reaction was, “Wow! The gift of Frederick Douglass has been given again on the first day of Black History Month.” Last year on Black History Month, February 1st, Google honored Frederick Douglass with its Google doodle of the day. And that act introduced the legacy of Frederick Douglass and his life and contributions to the country and to the world, to millions of people. And then, when I heard that Donald Trump said that Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job, I thought, “OK, well, this is great. This gives us an opportunity to be able to introduce and talk about his legacy and his life to a wider audience.”
AMY GOODMAN: Amazingly, Frederick Douglass was trending at some point on Thursday. He was as popular on social media as Beyoncé and her pregnancy announcement. So—
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Yeah, I have—I have two young daughters, and they were very proud that Frederick Douglass was number one over Beyoncé.
AMY GOODMAN: So this is an incredible educational moment. Can you talk about Frederick Douglass’s life and what people around the world should know about him?
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Well, both of my ancestors, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, were born into slavery. And they were born into the most horrific conditions that a human being could be subjected to. But yet, through the power of education, both of my ancestors understood from a very young age that education equals freedom.
And for Frederick Douglass, at the age of nine years old, he was sent from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he was born on a plantation, to go to Baltimore to be the house servant for his master’s brother. And when he got there, his slave mistress had never had slaves before, and she didn’t know that it was illegal to teach him to read and write, so she began to teach young Frederick his ABCs. But when his master found out about it, he got angry, and he forbade it. And he looked at Frederick, and he looked at his wife Sophia, and he said, “You cannot teach a slave how to read and write, because if you do, it will unfit him to be a slave.” And Frederick looked at his master, and he heard that message loud and clear, and he understood right then and there that education would be his pathway to freedom.
At the age of 20 in 1838, he would have the courage to run away from slavery. He would eventually settle in New Bedford, Massachusetts. And instead of just saying, “I’m free now. I’ll start a family and get a job,” he looked back, and he saw that there was this institution of legalized slavery that needed to be dismantled. And he, along with the other abolitionists, got to work and worked on ending slavery. He became an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln, and then a statesman, the first African American to be nominated for vice president. He was counsel general to Haiti. And his contributions really tell us that he was a true American hero.
AMY GOODMAN: Your family responded to Donald Trump’s words by coming up with what? A list of 15 points that you feel Douglass has done a great job at, as President Trump put it.
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Right, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. We wanted to look at and highlighting some points that would be relevant today. You know, you played the 4th of July speech in the opening piece there. And when you listen to Frederick Douglass’s words, they are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them 150, 170 years ago. And the work that we do at our organization is about teaching the next generation of leaders about his life, because when you look at where he came from and what he was able to overcome, it becomes a tangible example to a young person that if he was able to overcome slavery—and it doesn’t get any worse than that—then there’s nothing in their lives that they can’t do when they face challenges and obstacles. And we’ve been working for the past eight years at our organization to bring the legacies of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass into the classroom, and working on human rights issues, working on issues of human trafficking, labor trafficking, child sex trafficking. So, it really was an opportunity for us to list those bullet points of some really great things that he did for our country and for the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Morris, the property in Maryland where Frederick Douglass was tortured and beaten, Mount Misery—
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —because he was considered a troublesome slave, [the property Mount Misery] was bought right around the beginning of the Iraq War by, at the time, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Frederick Douglass fled, went north, went into the—took refuge in the printing press building here in New York City of a free black man born in Connecticut named David Ruggles. So, Ruggles had this printing press, and your great-great-great-grandfather Frederick Douglass founded The North Star newspaper. Can you talk more about that, why these men saw media as their form of liberation?
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: When Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery around the age of 22 years old, he saw that this new, emerging technology of photography would be something that would help him make his arguments for liberation and equality in the same way that his writings and his speeches would. So he was somebody that understood from a very young age that you could use the communication tools that you have at your disposal to be able to communicate a message to a wider audience.
And when he started The North Star newspaper, it became the leading abolitionist voice, and it was where he could talk about the inhumanity of slavery. He could tell the world, tell the country, about what he went through on Mount Misery when the slave breaker Edward Covey tried to break his spirit and tried to break him down so that he would be at the level of a brute. But he didn’t allow that to happen, and he had this spirit that just rose up inside of him. And he and Covey, if you know the story, they had an epic two-hour battle in which Frederick struck his own blow for his own liberation.
So The North Star newspaper was a place where he could go, and many other abolitionists, to be able to talk about slavery and really shape the public consciousness on what slavery was really about, because those that were pro-slavery, and the federal government, who made it illegal to teach a slave how to read and write, put it out there that these were Africans, that they were savages, that—savages, they were better off in slavery, and at least they were getting some level of care. And Frederick Douglass, when he came out and when he wrote, he shattered that notion. He shattered the notion in the public consciousness that slavery was not something that was a good thing for enslaved Africans.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Frederick Douglass’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln?
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Well, they met on at least three occasions. And the occasion that I like to talk about most when we’re talking to young people, when we’re talking to students, was the third visit to the White House, which was right after Lincoln’s inauguration. And Frederick Douglass was front and center when Lincoln delivered his inaugural address. And then, after that speech, Douglass was invited to the White House for the gala, or, as my daughters would say, the after-party. And when he got there, they wouldn’t let him in. They wouldn’t let him in because he was black. It didn’t matter that he had written three best-selling autobiographies, that he was the leader of the abolitionist movement. None of that mattered. And when word got back to President Lincoln that he was outside, he said, “Oh, no, you come on in. Let him in.” And as they’re walking toward each other—and Douglass was very tall, as was Lincoln, and if you can imagine these imposing figures just towering over the guests—and President Lincoln points out, and he said, “Here comes my friend Frederick Douglass. I want to know what you thought about my speech, because there’s no person’s opinion that I value more than yours.” And Douglass said that it was a sacred effort.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Kenneth Morris, you’re leading up to the bicentennial of your great-great-[great]-grandfather Frederick Douglass’s birth, February 2018. You have written to the White House, to the Trump administration, to somehow be involved, is that right? Have you gotten a response?
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: We have not written to the White House yet, but we’re working on a project called One Million Abolitionists, and we’re going to produce or publish a special edition of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative for his bicentennial. And Bryan Stevenson, whom I know you’ve had on the show before, wrote an introduction, and what he is doing is connecting Frederick Douglass’s work and his writings and making that direct connection through Jim Crow, through all the way up to mass incarceration. And we want to inspire 1 million young people with Douglass’s words, so we’re going to give away that book, put it into the hands of young people everywhere. And leading up to 2018 and that bicentennial, we’re going to offer social service projects so our young people can get socially active, get in their communities and work on these issues that they’re most passionate about, because, you know, we’re talking about issues of systemic racism. And we want—in the same way that Frederick Douglass heard his master say education will unfit him to be a slave, we want to unfit young people to be oppressed, to look at how media shapes their consciousness and who they are and how these systemic issues affect them, and issues of lack of opportunity and lack of education. We want to inspire and lift up 1 million Frederick Douglasses.
AMY GOODMAN: Frederick Douglass is famous for saying in 1857, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” If Frederick Douglass were alive today, which the president may well think he is, what would he say to President Trump?
KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Well, we know that Frederick Douglass always spoke the truth. And I imagine if he were here today, he would be railing against injustice. He would be railing against inequality. And he would hold all of us accountable, but especially the administration, to make sure that the poor and the oppressed and people of color and every American is lifted up. You know, Booker T. Washington said, “If you want to lift up yourself, lift up someone else.” And I know Frederick Douglass would be talking to Donald Trump in the way that Frederick Douglass talked.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for sharing some history lessons with us, Kenneth Morris Jr., founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington.
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