Frederick Douglass a modern-day Republican? Think again

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Usually I’m really happy when history becomes part of the conversation. And normally, I’d be thrilled that Frederick Douglass was being talked about in the national media. After all, he was one of the most formidable people in American history. I love to teach his writings and to write about his impact on the fight for voting rights and the battle against racial segregation.

So this week it was sad to see Douglass’s legacy cheapened as members of the right wing sought to use his name as some kind of political racial shield. This week, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference hosted a breakout session entitled “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist When You Know You’re Not One?” Yes, that’s really the title.

The session, hosted by K. Carl Smith, founder of The Conservative Messenger, right-wing pundit, and self-described “Frederick Douglass Republican,” taught attendees how to deflect racism, using their handy-dandy Frederick Douglass shield.

Smith uses Douglass’ historic alliance with the Republican Party of the 1860s and 1870s to try and make claims about the party’s racial bona fides today. Its fine to admire Douglass or want to use his life as a model for advocacy, but it seems that Smith has decided that Douglass’ name alone is enough to silence critics concerned about questions of race in the Republican Party of today.

Born into slavery in 1818 in Maryland, separated from his mother as an infant, never knowing — but believing — that his father was probably his white master, Douglass found his way to freedom and literacy despite tremendous odds stacked against him. Once free, he became an abolitionist and a brilliant orator, speaking throughout the North and abroad. He risked his own freedom as an escaped slave to advocate publicly for the freedom of millions of enslaved African-Americans throughout the American South. But Douglass was more than an abolitionist. He used his platform to become an author, speaker, and advocate for not only the rights of black Americans, but also women’s rights, and the rights of people of color abroad. He became black America’s first statesman; a tireless advocate for justice until his death in 1895.

At his session last Friday, Smith tried to frame Douglass in terms of today’s politics. According to the Washington Post, Smith claimed that Douglass was “born below poverty” and suffered at the hands of slave masters, who were Democrats. Smith then tried to draw comparisons between Douglass’ life and today’s political debates by saying that Douglass suffered under “slavemaster-run health care” and “slavemaster entitlements.”

The historical record shows that the enslaved did not receive any “entitlements” in exchange for their free labor, nor were they enslaved because they were members of the Republican Party. They weren’t recognized as citizens at all, so they certainly weren’t suffering because of any supposed political affiliation. Also, slavery wasn’t an anti-poverty program. In fact, the wealth generated by inter-generational chattel slavery made thousands of slaveholders obscenely wealthy in both land and property.  So I’m pretty sure this comparison doesn’t work.

Smith’s presentation also skips over the dramatic shifts in both the Democratic and Republican Parties since Douglass’s death in the 1890s.

Although the emancipated slaves did initially vote for the Republican Party that worked diligently to ensure citizenship and voting rights during the Reconstruction, the majority of black southerners were stripped of their right to vote in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Southern Democrats ushered in an age of terror, disfranchising African American voters, passing segregation laws in state legislatures, and enforcing these changes through the threat of lynching.

In the effort to attract white voters, the southern Republicans began the Lily-White Republican movement in the 1880s and 1890s in order to oust black politicians and appointees from the party. By the early 1920s, black voters in the South had no viable political alternatives in either party even if they managed to overcome the poll taxes, literacy tests, and all-white primaries in order to register to vote.