“Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!”: Great-Great-Great-Grandson Echoes Frederick Douglass on 201st Birthday

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This month marks the 201st birthday of the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery around 1818. He died a free man in 1895. Thursday night, leaders from around the country gathered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to honor the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass as part of a ceremony culminating a year of events marking the bicentennial of the birth of the celebrated abolitionist, politician, writer, feminist, educator, entrepreneur and diplomat. We are joined by Kenneth Morris Jr., Frederick Douglass’s great-great-great-grandson, president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, and also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington. He says the lesson he hopes young activists will take from his great-great-great-grandfather Frederick Douglass is: “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate. … It’s really important that activists and young people understand that they can lift their voices and agitate.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the nation’s capital, from Washington, D.C.

Well, this Black History Month marks the 201st birthday of the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass was born into slavery in 1818, it is believed. He died a free man in 1895—that’s known. On July 5th, 1852, in Rochester, New York, Douglass gave one of his most famous speeches, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the American 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.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: [read by James Earl Jones] 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: James Earl Jones reading the speech of Frederick Douglass.

Well, last night, leaders from around the country gathered at the Library of Congress here in Washington, D.C., to honor the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass. The ceremony was the culmination of a year of events marking the bicentennial of the birth of the celebrated abolitionist, politician, writer, feminist, educator, entrepreneur and diplomat.

We’re joined now by Kenneth Morris Jr., Frederick Douglass’s great-great-great-grandson. He’s here in Washington, D.C., to celebrate his ancestor’s remarkable legacy. Kenneth Morris Jr. is the co-founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: What a legacy! What a legacy!

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Wow!

AMY GOODMAN: So, especially for young people, tell us about Frederick Douglass. Tell us about his life history and what he would have felt about what’s happening today.

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Well, he was born into slavery, as you said, sometime in 1818. He was born to an enslaved woman and to a white man, and it was presumed that his master was his father. And he had an opportunity in his life where he was taken from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to Baltimore to be the house servant for his master’s brother.

And the reason I say it was an opportunity was because when he got there, his slave mistress had never had a slave before and didn’t know that it was illegal to teach him. She begins to teach him his ABCs. His master finds out, gets angry, forbade the lessons. But that was all that Frederick Douglass needed, was that little spark of knowledge into his mental darkness.

He would teach himself to read and write, over the objections of his overseers; escapes slavery at the age of 20 in 1838. He would go on to become an adviser to President Lincoln. He was an ambassador and consul general to Haiti, first African-American U.S. marshal—and the list goes on and on—and would pass away in 1895 in his home in Washington, D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the mark he made, the fight against slavery, the fight—really, a leading advocate of women’s rights and women’s suffrage.

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: When he first published his autobiography, the Narrative, in 1845, it became a best-seller. And the notoriety from the book threatened his freedom, because he was still a fugitive at the time, at the age of 27. And he had to flee to Europe for a couple of years as a cooling-off period. And when he was in Europe, he spent some time in Ireland and came into contact with the great Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell. And Daniel O’Connell really helped Frederick Douglass to understand that—about human rights and the fight for human rights for everyone.

When he would return back to the United States after his abolitionist friends paid for his freedom from his master, he came back with a different mindset, an internationalist mindset of fighting for human rights for everybody. And this is why you see him become one of the first statesmen of any race to fight for women’s rights and women’s suffrage and to speak out for the rights of immigrants and many other disenfranchised groups.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in 2017, Donald Trump seemed to suggest he thought Frederick Douglass was still alive. This is Trump speaking at a Black History Month event two years ago.

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: He notices. That was President Trump. It might have been encouraging for you to know, Kenneth, that your great-great-great-grandfather was still alive.

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Well, it would have been nice, because I’ve always looked forward to meeting him. And so, had he still been alive, that would have been a great thing. But the last time that the two of us were together, we talked about that, two years ago. And that really has been the gift that keeps on giving.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about me and you, not you and President Trump.

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Yes, that’s correct, yeah. The gift that keeps on giving, because it really put his name out there into the public consciousness. And many people know the name Frederick Douglass, but they don’t necessarily know what he did or what his contributions were to the country. So, there was good and bad that came from that. But as far as our work, the name recognition has really helped us to advance the work in the bicentennial year.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re moving your institute to Rochester, New York. Why?

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Frederick Douglass spent 25 years of his life there. He published The North Star newspaper there, which was the leading abolitionist voice. It’s where he chose to be buried, in Mount Hope Cemetery. And it is really time for the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and the family of Frederick Douglass to return back to the city that he loved so much. We’ve been able to develop some great relationships in the community. During the bicentennial year, we worked on a project where we erected 13 statues of Frederick Douglass all around the city at sites that were significant in his life.

AMY GOODMAN: Was one of the statues of Frederick Douglass recently vandalized?

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: It was vandalized. And it’s interesting that the site where that statue was vandalized, by two students at St. John Fisher College, was the site where a school stood where Frederick and Anna’s oldest daughter was enrolled, but she was forced to be segregated from the rest of her classmates. Then, eventually, Frederick would take her out of the school. So, it was interesting that this racist act of tearing down this statue was at the site where Rosetta had suffered racism and segregation.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to leave people with, as we come out of the—well, February 14th is now being—is the day you’ve chosen to celebrate your great-great-great-grandfather’s birthday—but especially young people today?

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: Yeah, well, it’s—that’s the date that he chose for his birthday. He only saw his mother four times his whole life, and she used to call him her little Valentine. So, when he was looking for a day to celebrate his birthday, he chose February 14th.

But what we would hope young people would take away, I think, is a great story. When Frederick Douglass was near the end of his life, at his home here in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., he loved to walk around the street and interact with the kids. And there was a young man that walked up to him and said, “What advice would you give to a person that’s looking to fight for justice and fight for equality?” And without hesitation, Frederick said, “Agitate, agitate, agitate.” And he was always agitating. And, of course, in the political climate that we’re in right now, with the divisiveness and the rhetoric, it’s really important that activists and young people understand that they can lift their voices and agitate.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of him being one of the most photographed people—back then.

KENNETH MORRIS JR.: I find it amazing. He was 22 years old, only two years removed from slavery, never having spent one day of his life in a classroom. He understood that this new technology, photography, could help him make his arguments for liberation and equality. And he understood that he could present himself in the public as a man worthy of freedom, worthy of citizenship.

And if we think about the visuals of Frederick Douglass and his intense steely glare in those photographs, especially the young years, he did that intentionally, because, he said, “I never want to look like a happy, amiable fugitive slave.” He’s trying to shatter the notion in the public consciousness that these were people of African descent that were not worthy of freedom or citizenship and perhaps they were better off in slavery, make them an “other” to justify brutalizing them, exploiting them and dehumanizing them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kenneth Morris, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Kenneth Morris Jr. is the co-founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass. We’ll have you back to talk about your other ancestor. You are also the great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington.

This is Democracy Now! But when we come back, we’ll be joined by American University professor Ibram X. Kendi. Stay with us.

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