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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black People, Frederick Douglass, and the Grand Old Party

Conservative TV guru Glenn Beck has made much of “America’s black Founding Fathers” and has skillfully used his media role in putting a politically self-serving spin on the history of black Republican leadership in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Apparently, this has been very exciting for white conservatives, probably because it has given them the thrilling illusion of finally being on the right side of history in the matter of “race.” Black conservatives have also jumped on the black Republican history bandwagon, particularly by hoisting up the banner of Frederick Douglass.

No Revelation

Glenn Beck's Black Revelation
The funny thing about all this conservative rhetoric about the forgotten history of black Republicans is that the only people who seem to have forgotten about it was white society in general, especially white conservatives. Black history studies, which conservatives have opposed for decades, have long promoted the study and awareness of African American leadership in the Reconstruction era. Truth be told, Leftist and liberal scholars have done more to promote a historically sound and informed understanding of early black Republican politics than have conservatives. It's a kind of straw man argument that Beck and his kind use when they make much ado about "discovering" African American Republicans. The question for Beck and his parrots is, "where have you been all this time that you're only talking about black Republican leaders now?"

Of course, there have always been black Republicans and conservatives, and it is not my intention to deny their right to a voice in the public square. Nor do I believe that just because one is black, one has to be a Democrat. (There have been black socialists and Communists as well as Republicans.)  Nor do I disagree with everything that black conservatives say, and I doubt that John Brown would either. On the other hand, my main objection to this black Republican-Frederick Douglass "revelation" is that as it is being portrayed it is historically inaccurate and certainly opportunistic. It is particularly wrong for political conservatives to appropriate the 19th century black Republican legacy in advancing their own agenda, especially by playing racial one-upmanship--imputing the guilt of the racist 19th century Democratic Party to the contemporary Democratic Party.

For instance, consider the white conservative blog, Liberty’s Army, which has a post (29 May 2010) celebrating “Our Black Founding Fathers and the Democrat Founders of American Slavery.” It includes this “historical” summary:

The Klu Klux Klan was founded as a Democrat proxy group. Many black Americans served in the U.S. Government in the 1800′s and beyond as part of the “Radical Republican” party. In 1912 the ‘Progressive’ Democrat, President Woodrow Wilson instituted racial segregation into the Federal Government. Many blacks were subsequently pushed out of the Federal Government. . . . Wilson was a Presbyterian and ‘intellectual elite’ of ‘Progressive’ idea and policies, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, where he denied entrance to black Americans. Wilson was elected President as a Democrat in 1912. Early in his first term, he instituted racial segregation in the federal government. Wilson worked with a Democratic Majority Congress to pass major ‘progressive’ legislation that included the Federal Trade Commission, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Farm Loan Act, America’s first-ever federal ‘progressive’ income tax in the Revenue Act of 1913 and most notably the Federal Reserve Act. It was the Federal Reserve Act that privatized much of The Federal Reserve and some say took oversight of the monetary system of The United States away from the people. The new Democrats represent Institutionalized Racism.
This is an amazing historical sleight-of-hand. By pointing out the Republican roots of the black community in contrast to the racist Democratic Party, the author then slides from the racial prejudice of Woodrow Wilson to his economic policies, which must also be bad if Wilson was such a racist, right?

Whose Democratic Party?

Of course it is true that the Democratic Party in the 19th century was overtly racist and sympathetic to the slave master. However, the contemporary Democratic Party is not in denial about its racist roots, and anyone with a basic knowledge of U.S. history knows that the party of President Obama is not the party of James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas. Furthermore, it is no secret that the origin of the modern Democratic Party goes back to the liberal politics of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the late 1930s. In other words, it is disingenuous and self-serving for contemporary white conservatives to link the historic Klan with the Democratic Party, when in reality the Democratic Party of the 19th century was a conservative white supremacist party quite unlike the Democratic Party that emerged in the 20th century.

This kind of argument is historically dishonest and frankly ridiculous. Historically speaking, “Republican” and “Democrat” are labels, not precise instruments for reading political content. As such, there is little historical consistency between the Democrats of Frederick Douglass’ era and the Democrats of today. What is consistent and scientifically observable is the nature and pattern of white conservative politics, which has always privileged the priorities of the wealthy and played upon the fears and prejudices of the majority in the U.S.

Which Republicans?

Secondly, although the blogger of Liberty’s Army mentions that black Republican leaders at the time of Reconstruction were radical, there seems to be the presumption that all Republicans were so heroic. In fact, die-hard black Republicans at the time represented the left-leaning, politically radical side of the party who advocated for extreme government intervention on behalf of African American liberation and progress.

In other words, not only is the Democratic Party of Douglass’ era NOT the Democratic Party of today, but the Republican Party of the post-Civil War era as portrayed by Glenn Beck and other white conservatives is mere stylization. What Beck and other white conservatives have entirely overlooked is that even though Douglass was a die-hard Republican (and he was perhaps far more loyal to the Republicans than he should have been at times), in the Reconstruction era he was fearful that the conservative Republican element of his era were going to take over the party.
When Douglass spoke of the Republican Party, he was thinking of its most radical political manifestation, the party that had not only pushed for abolition of slavery and black suffrage, but also for a strong governmental presence in protecting and advancing the black community at the expense of their former white oppressors in the South.

Glenn Beck and other white conservatives have overlooked the fact that the Republican Party was actually tearing into two parts in the early 1870s. On one side were the Radical Republicans, black Republicans and their allies, who would frighten most of today’s white conservative Republicans. On the other side were the conservative Republicans, who are the political and social progenitors of the 20th century conservative movement in the U.S. For instance, conservative Republicans opposed unions that protected both black workers and poor whites and favored wealthy business interests. And even though the original Ku Klux Klan was a “Democratic” terrorist organization that assaulted black people in the South, it was conservative Republicans who abandoned them to face this terror alone. Quite in contrast to the “liberal” Radical Republicans, these conservative Republicans did not want the federal government to intervene by providing military protection to the black community. Conservative Republicans, including Horace Greeley, the turncoat publisher of The New York Tribune, thus betrayed blacks by calling for the end of Reconstruction—that is, Greeley and his Republican ilk wanted to forget the former slaves and move on with white nation-building, which meant ignoring the political, economic, and social crises of African Americans. This is further demonstrated by the fact that conservative Republicans opposed the Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, who called for supplemental civil rights legislation in support of the black community. To the contrary, conservative Republicans wanted to advance the interests of big northern business interests in the South by cooperating with southern whites (the former Confederate rebels) at the expense of the black community.
Frederick Douglass versus Conservative Republicans

On November 24, 1870, Frederick Douglass thus wrote in The New National Era:
What do Republican Senators mean by refusing to give to the black people of the United States the same protection as any other class of citizens? For they do refuse by their actions in appointing committees of inquiry into the Ku-Klux matters, and giving more time to the rebels to be used in killing and intimidating colored voters. [my emphasis in italics—LD]
On March 23, 1871, the same publication contained this challenge from Douglass to black readers:
Colored voters of the South, you must not forget those who forget you and your rights. You must teach them that they are mistaken in considering you mere voting machines, ready and willing to vote for any man calling himself a Republican, who comes before you for your suffrages. . . . Do not vote for a member of Congress who does not aid in giving you ‘Equality before the law.’”
It is no wonder that African Americans followed Douglass in threatening the Republican Party under Ulysses S. Grant, warning that blacks would not “blindly follow the lead of any sham Republicanism.” The threat of losing the black vote kept Grant in line even though he was no friend of the black community.

Frederick Douglass is not a perfect paradigm of political judgment, and perhaps he has been justly criticized for losing touch with the black southern community for a period in his later years. Yet Douglass never lost sight of the Republican Party as he considered its true calling—to assume a radical, uncompromising posture toward the rights and needs of the disenfranchised and oppressed, and away from the selfish interests of the wealthy and powerful. As far as the role of government, Douglass was not against the increase of federal presence and power as long as it was functioning to the advantage of the poor. Douglass was passionate about the Republican Party, but he was also quite aware of the dangerous, lurking presence of white conservatism in the Republican Party and its goals of abandoning the black community and the poor in favor of revising white supremacy and the unbridled greed of the wealthy.

More Republican Party History for Glenn Beck

That Douglass was right to fear for his precious Republican Party is an understatement. It is a matter of historical record that the so-called Party of Lincoln was ultimately taken over by white conservative politicians, leaving blacks to languish without the political arm that once fought on their behalf. With the generation of Sumner and the “Black Republicans” dead and gone, the G.O.P. worked to undermine black progress from the late 19th century and into the 20th century. This is proven in the bitter testimony of Gen. James Clarkson, a Radical Republican who outlived the abolitionist generation and witnessed the Republican Party’s bitter betrayal of the black community. In 1910, eight years before his death, Clarkson lamented that the Republican Party “came into power as the champion of human liberty,” but had stopped “protecting the citizens of this country.” Clarkson said that blacks no longer owed any debt to the Republican Party, and advised the black man to “divide his vote” because “The Republican party has betrayed him, and is betraying him now.”1 Later that year, in August 1910, the National Independent Political League, an African American organization, convened its third annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Its leaders and guests, including the son of one of John Brown’s raiders) shared the common conviction of the organization’s president, who declared the Republican Party,
our erstwhile friend, seeing that it was popular to take a fling at the Negro notwithstanding that the Negro had been its most faithful ally, proceeded to give him an additional blow by eliminating him from the councils of the Republican party. It started at the county conventions, and this was followed by the state conventions, and finally the Negro was eliminated from the national committee, on which he had served since 1868.2

The same speaker pointed out how segregationist legislation had undermined the black community in the South, and that blacks had been told by their white Republican colleagues that “such enactments would prove a help rather than a hindrance,” and that they would do more harm than good by agitating “and that we ought to cease it.” Finally, he pointed out how the black community had been hoodwinked by the Republican President William Howard Taft, who came posing as an abolitionist scion and friend of the black community, but proved an enemy indeed. “Our belief in this fact was confirmed when in his inaugural address he indorsed the disenfranchisement laws of the south.”3

This little history lesson is only the tip of the iceberg. It would be well for Glenn Beck and his black choir of “Frederick Douglass” Republicans to study their history a bit closer rather than dealing in hollow, mythical generalizations about the Republican Party. The legacy of Radical Republicanism so attractive to African Americans was unfortunately a fleeting episode in the larger scheme of Republican history. The number of noble white Republicans—the classic Radical Republicans of a bygone era, have few real progeny in the Republican Party. They do exist, but they are so few as to be neither the voice nor the force of the Republican Party. They are certainly not represented by the myriad fuming, rabid crypto-racists who have made such a pastime of maligning President Obama in the name of freedom. The animating spirit behind the modern Tea Party movement may not be overtly racist, but its spirit is most certainly that of white conservatism revised, particularly in its indifference to the political and economic realities of the poor and the oppressed.

A Chat with Frederick Douglass’s Great-Great-Great Grandson

This past Friday I had the pleasure of enjoying coffee and conversation with Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., the direct descendant of Frederick Douglass (and also a direct descendant of Booker T. Washington). I was among a small number of friends and associates who were gathered at a nearby Starbucks to meet with Kenneth, who is the founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, a modern anti-slavery organization.

Morris and Your Blogger
(photo by Ian Barford)
We were also pleased to meet Kenneth’s long time friend and colleague, Robert J. Benz, who serves as the executive vice president of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. Among the many points of interesting conversation, Kenneth mentioned his family’s frustration at the appropriation of Frederick Douglass’ name by this new generation of black political conservatives. The Douglass family descendants are particularly disappointed that one group of black conservatives have actually named themselves "The Frederick Douglass Foundation," although their political philosophy is not consistent with the Douglass family’s understanding of the Douglass legacy. While the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation is primarily devoted to opposing all modern forms of slavery going on in the U.S. and worldwide, it is not organizationally indifferent to the historical and political aspects of the Douglass legacy and they do not agree with or support the appropriation of their great forefather’s name by short-sighted, self-interested conservatives, whether black or white.

Before we parted, Kenneth encouraged me to devote some attention to this problem, at least in pointing out the historical inaccuracies underlying the contemporary “Frederick Douglass Republican” rationale. In so doing, I hope this is a salutary contribution in honor of one of the greatest liberators and leaders of the modern era. Of course it goes without saying that in this John Brown blog, there will always be room for anything, great or small, pertaining to Frederick Douglass.


      1 “Gen. Jas. S. Clarkson; The Retired Surveyor of the Port of New York Declares Negroes Owe the Republican Party Nothing,” The Chicago Defender (30 April 1910), p. 1.

      2“Negro Voters Are Aroused; Brave Stand Taken to Prevent Further Disenfranchisement; Republican Party Not True,” The Afro-American [Baltimore] (27 August 1910), p. 6.

      3 Ibid.

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