Frederick Douglass
The Frederick Douglass Statue in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitors Center, at the U.S. Capitol, on June 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Congressional leaders dedicated the statue during a ceremony on Wednesday. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The unveiling of the Frederick Douglass statue in Emancipation Hall commemorates how far we have come as a nation. As a civil rights pioneer, Douglass dedicated his life for equality in the United States and the abolition of slavery. 

This statue will remain a testament to his heroic efforts from a former slave to a great American writer and orator.  On this Juneteenth, we must remember the struggles that shaped our country into what it is today.  We must also recognize that there is still work to be done, and continue to stand for liberty as those like Frederick Douglass.

Fredrick Douglass was persistent in his efforts to fight for equality before and after the end of slavery.   He tried to escape from slavery two times before finally succeeding. As a former slave he was not taken seriously as an orator or a writer, but his talent overcame the obstacles. He was the epitome of the American spirit and is one of my greatest inspirations.

Douglass worked closely with President Abraham Lincoln to help organize the emancipation of slaves throughout the South.  Due in part to its geographic location, Texas was the last region to be informed of the emancipation. Major General Gordon Granger and his Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, to announce that the Civil War was over.  On this day, slaves in Texas were finally freed — two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed that was supposed to end slavery. For an additional two years, lives of some 250,000 Americans were stolen. In many ways, Juneteenth is the day that marks the abolition of slavery in America and remains a significant date in U.S. history.

Frederick Douglass knew that the struggle for equality was far from being over. He believed that since African-American men were fighting in the American Civil War, they deserved the right to vote.   Douglass once stated, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”  Douglass worked for the suffrage of black freemen and had the courage to publicly condemn President Lincoln who did not endorse the issue.

Like Douglass we have to realize a perpetual battle for equality is ahead of us.  Lincoln may have called for the end of slavery, but slavery continued.  The Civil Rights Movement may have ended in the 1960s, but we continue to strive for civil rights and equality.  Unfortunately discrimination in many forms still exists in our country. Though the battle for equality is continuous, we do have the power to make a more perfect union.  This is evident with the recent Supreme Court ruling that outlawed voter identification requirements in Arizona. It is apparent with the ongoing fight for gay marriage. The struggle still continues and we must act together.

I admire that our country has the ability to recognize its faults and work towards progress. Having attended a high school that proudly bears his name, I have dedicated my life to continue the legacy of Frederick Douglass and many others who followed in his footsteps.  I marched from Selma to Montgomery alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because I believed segregation was unjust.

As a Congressman, I stood up to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Supporting legislation that will advance civil rights is important to me because I believe in a tolerant America with equal opportunity for all — regardless of race, color, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

Frederick Douglass symbolizes how a courageous individual can sculpt the conscience of our country. The government may implement change, but it is the people who ignite it. It is the people who embrace it.  It is the people who reinforce our liberties.  The power is in education, voting, expressing individual ideas, and taking proactive role in shaping the country. I challenge everyone in America on this Juneteenth, to utilize their rights and continue to work for a more equal and free nation.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, representing Upper Manhattan and part of the Bronx, has served in Congress since 1971.