Last week, Frederick Douglass — who escaped slavery at 20 years old and whose words would help bring an end to the institution — was honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s and ’70s, far left activists like Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis of Communist Party USA incorporated Douglass’ call to agitation in their various causes’ platforms. Yet in a fascinating turnaround, the brilliant abolitionist, writer and orator is developing a new – and perhaps, unexpected – political identity: Tea Party hero.
The recent rise in interest in Douglass by conservatives stems from their belief that his life epitomizes the self-reliance they champion, and his writings help provide justification for small government. It may be surprising to some that the fiery, Black radical abolitionist of the 19th century, who once called Fourth of July celebrations “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages,” could be inspiring to a Tea Party patriot. Or that social conservatives could find common cause with the man who bitterly attacked America’s Christianity as “a lie.” But that is exactly what is happening.
Though Douglass famously referred to himself as “a Black, dyed in the wool Republican,” there is more to his current appeal among conservatives than party affiliation.
I recently spoke with K. Carl Smith, an African-American conservative who is a popular speaker in the Tea Party circuit. Smith considers himself a Frederick Douglass Republican. He told me, “Douglass is a bridge that will reignite America’s passion for liberty.” Regarding the timeliness of last week’s Douglass statue dedication in the Capitol, he said, “There’s a reason why it’s now – because the state of our country is in such an uproar in terms of the economy and social issues. We have a runaway federal government. It was Douglass who helped Lincoln save a country that was divided. And we need to look at Douglass again. Douglass is key.” And Smith is not alone.
Prominent conservative economist Thomas Sowell cites Douglass in his critique of government intervention on behalf of African-Americans in a column in which he writes, “Frederick Douglass had achieved a deeper understanding in the 19th century than any of the Black ‘leaders’ of today.” And Bush-appointed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas quoted Douglass for support in his controversial dissenting opinion in the Grutter v. Bollinger affirmative action case.