Frederick Douglass and voting rights

Linda Chavez

I have been reading — more accurately, listening to — David Blight’s new biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” It is a welcome respite from the day’s news but also a sober reminder of a racial history that still scars America. Douglass emerges in the book as a far more complicated, occasionally unlikable hero of the anti-slavery movement. Brilliant, self-taught in the arts of literature and rhetoric, Douglass was a fugitive slave who became one of the most famous and important men of the 19th century. But it is Blight’s descriptions of Washington, D.C., during the Civil War that most moved me. The city became a muddy tent town when thousands of former Southern slaves emancipated in January 1863 fled north with nothing but hope, a group of their children learning to read in a smokehouse-turned-school on Robert E. Lee’s estate in Arlington, Virginia. Government buildings became temporary hospitals filled with sick and dying Union soldiers, amputees who might never be able to support themselves or families. And Douglass, facing this human tragedy, became all the more convinced that such suffering and bloodshed could be justified only if blacks — former slaves and freemen alike — were given full and complete rights of citizenship, most importantly the right to vote.

For Douglass, the Civil War was necessary to expiate the sin of slavery. Until the slave-supporting South was mercilessly defeated and the black man granted his rightful status as an equal in every way before the law, America would never be truly free. Douglass locked horns with Abraham Lincoln over the issue of equal wages for black soldiers — 180,000 of whom fought in the Civil War but were paid less than their white counterparts and did not receive commissions as officers — and, more importantly, over granting all black men the right to vote. Without the right to vote, Douglass correctly predicted, blacks would be subjected to continued discrimination and would never be truly free or equal. Douglass understood that especially in the South, whites, with fresh memories of the cruelties of war, would seek vengeance on blacks.

The bitter years of Reconstruction and the adoption of Jim Crow laws throughout the South proved Douglass right — despite the eventual adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which established “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It would be another 95 years before the promise of the 15th Amendment would become a reality, largely through the changes brought about with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today voting rights and black voter suppression remain topics of heated dispute, largely along partisan lines. Differences in turnout between blacks and whites remain significant, especially in midterm elections. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 65.3 percent of whites turned out in 2016, while only 59.6 percent of blacks did, compared with 2012, when 66.6 percent of blacks voted, exceeding the rate for whites for the first time. In the 2018 midterms, black voting was again lower than white participation, amid charges of voter suppression in states such as Georgia.

It is not hard to imagine that Frederick Douglass would be disappointed were he alive today to see that a right won by such sacrifice has not been exercised to its fullest. He would, of course, lament that some politicians still aim to suppress the votes of African-Americans — as much because they vote overwhelmingly Democratic as because of their color — but I imagine he would be disappointed, too, at apathy and indifference among too many Americans. We take for granted the freedom to pick our leaders. But when too many of us refuse the responsibility to vote, we should not be surprised at the sorry state of our leaders. Would that there were a Frederick Douglass out there who could remind us of the duty of citizens in a democracy.

Editor’s note: Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.