by Charles M. Blow
Last week at a supposed Black History Month “listening session” at the White House, Donald Trump made this baffling statement: “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 that is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
It sounded a bit like he thought the inimitable Douglass, who died in 1895, was some lesser-known black leader who was still alive.
When Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked what Trump meant by his Douglass comments, Spicer responded:
“I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made. And I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
Assuming that the “he” in that sentence refers to Douglass, these numbskulls are actually referring to him as a living person and have absolutely no clue who Douglass is and what he means to America.
Social media had a field day with this, relentlessly mocking the team, but for me the emotion was overwhelming sadness: How could the American “president” or a White House press secretary, or any American citizen for that matter, not know who Douglass is?
Let’s be absolutely clear here: Frederick Douglass is a singular, towering figure of American history. The entire legacy of black intellectual thought and civil rights activism flows in some way through Douglass, from W.E.B. DuBois to Booker T. Washington, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to President Barack Obama himself.
Douglass was one of the most brilliant thinkers, writers and orators America has ever produced. Furthermore, he harnessed and mastered the media of his day: Writing an acclaimed autobiography, establishing his own newspaper and becoming the most photographed American of the 19th century.
Put another way: If modern social media existed during Douglass’s time, he would have been one of its kings.
Douglass also was a friend of Susan B. Anthony and an advocate for women’s civil rights as well as the civil rights of black people, understanding even then the intersectionality of oppressions. In fact, the motto of his newspaper, The North Star, was “Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.
But perhaps one of the best reasons Trump and Spicer need to bone up on Douglass is to understand his relationship with Abraham Lincoln and to get a better sense of what true leadership looks like.
Douglass was a blistering critic of Lincoln from the beginning. In Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address, he quoted from one of his previous speeches in which he had said “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists,” and he went on to defend the Fugitive Slave Act, promising the slave states full enforcement of it as long as it was on the books.
This incensed Douglass, who said of the remarks: “Not content with the broadest recognition of the right of property in the souls and bodies of men in the slave states, Mr. Lincoln next proceeds, with nerves of steel, to tell the slaveholders what an excellent slave hound he is.”
Although Douglass’s cutting critique of Lincoln began to soften after Lincoln announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass continued to be unhappy throughout the Civil War about the unequal treatment of black soldiers in the Union Army. But even in the midst of this criticism, Lincoln entertained Douglass at the White House.
Although Douglass wasn’t fully satisfied with Lincoln’s positions, Douglass remarked of the meeting: “Mr. Lincoln listened with earnest attention and with very apparent sympathy, and replied to each point in his own peculiar, forcible way.”
This stands in stark contrast to Trump’s avoidance of black intellectuals and even any real critics. Trump’s “listening session” seemed to be populated only by his black appointees and supporters.
Lincoln and Douglass would go on to develop a genuine friendship and Douglass would become something of Lincoln’s conscience on the slave issue. In fact, Lincoln called Douglass “one of the most meritorious men, if not the most meritorious man, in the United States.”
That is what leadership and growth look like. Lincoln grew from the association with and counsel from his onetime critic, to become one of the greatest presidents America has ever known.
Indeed Black History Month began not as a month but a week: Negro History week, the second week of February. It was established in 1926 by noted black historian Carter G. Woodson, and choosing February was no coincidence: It honored the birthdays of Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and Douglass, who helped direct his conscience.
Trump would do well to study this history; he has much to learn from it. As the historian Woodson’s personal motto went: “It’s never too late to learn.”
(This column originally appeared in the New York Times FEB 6, 2017 under the title “A Lesson in Black History”)
Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”