Frederick Douglass

freedom fighter for all

By: Alice Kim

This is the second article in a two-part series. Part one, “Frederick Douglass: Without Struggle, There is No Progress,” was featured in the May 2006 issue of The New Abolitionist.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became one of the most prominent abolitionists of the 19th century, dedicated his life to ending slavery and achieving justice for all Americans. Douglass genuinely believed that racism could be ended and that Blacks and whites could live in harmony. He understood that struggle was critical to making social change; and because of the relentless efforts of Douglass and other abolitionists, slavery was abolished in the United States.

With the end of slavery, Douglass hoped to “see as never before, the laborer, in all sections of this country, rising to respectability and power.” To make this vision a reality, Douglass pushed for measures that would help Blacks in the North and South economically and socially. For example, Douglass would lead an eight-year-long battle to desegregate public schools in the city of Rochester, N.Y., where he lived. He also pushed for national legislation that would grant Blacks the right to vote.

Douglass’ personal commitment to freedom meant that he instinctively identified with other oppressed groups. “I am not only an American slave, but a man,” said Douglass in a letter to fellow abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, “ and as such, am bound to use my powers for the welfare of the whole human brotherhood.” He said that he could not allow himself “to be insensible to the wrongs and sufferings of any part of the great family of man.”

When Douglass founded his newspaper, The North Star, he announced, “Standing as we do upon the watch-tower of human freedom, we can not be deterred from an expression of our approbation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character of any members of the human family.”

As a freedom fighter for all, Douglass identified with the Chartist movement in England, the first mass working class movement in the world calling for democratic rights for all, and he often described himself as a Chartist.

He hailed the movement to abolish flogging in the Navy, supported the universal peace movement, endorsed the land reform movement, and called for the abolition of capital punishment.

In addition to his work as an abolitionist, Douglass was well known for his support for women’s rights. Throughout his life, he actively fought for women’s suffrage. Douglass, who was only ten years removed from slavery, was the only man to play a prominent role in the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in July 1848. At the convention, Douglass was responsible for seconding Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resolution calling for women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls convention.

Douglass also challenged the women’s movement to confront racism within its ranks. For example, Douglass criticized women’s rights leaders who addressed audiences that barred Blacks from attending and challenged them to stop doing so. Similarly, he made a point of advancing women’s rights in his newspaper, even rejecting a proposed title change to “The Brotherhood” because it implied the exclusion of the sisterhood.

In 1866, along with Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Douglass founded the American Equal Rights Association. This new organization aimed to fuse the abolitionist and women’s rights movement to achieve its goal of universal suffrage. Not surprisingly, the press was full of ridicule for the organization. “All the isms of the age were personated there...infidels, saints, Negro-worshippers, sinners and short haired women…altogether the most long-necked, grim-visages, dyspeptic [meaning having indigestion], Puritanical, nasal-twinged agglomeration of isms ever assembled in this or any other state,” one newspaper complained.  

No stranger to reaction, Douglass would remain committed to women’s rights until the end of his life in 1895, although the Equal Rights Association would dissolve as the movement fractured and retreated.

As Douglass put it in a speech in 1886, on the 24th anniversary of Emancipation, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”