The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview
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3. The Politics of a Race Leader

Douglass, race propagandist and politician, represented the prototypical black leader in modern America. His ascension to the role betrayed the necessary conjunction of ability, ambition, and fortuitous circumstance. He gained his power and influence -- admittedly ambiguous and vulnerable-as much, if not more so, from his ties to influential whites, as from his sway over blacks. In fact, his status among the latter depended in large measure upon his status among powerful whites and his resulting facility at orchestrating among them support for tangible black advances. Besides his position as self-styled leader and liaison between influential whites and the black community, Douglass, a self-made man, embodied the potential and achievement of his race. 1

For Douglass, the preeminent race leader, consequently, there existed no separation between his personal identity and his racial duty. He personalized and internalized the collective black struggle; he personified his people's cause. Speaking of Douglass, William S. Scarborough, black scholar and Howard University professor, wrote: "The Negro's cause was his cause, and his cause was the Negro's cause. In defending his people he was defending himself." This was evident in his response to the charge by Samuel Hanson Cox, Presbyterian clergyman and fellow American, that he had almost ruined a World's Temperance Convention in London ( 1846) by expounding upon abolitionism. Self-defense was imperative, Douglass replied, when to defend oneself "is to defend great and vital principles, the vindication of which is essential to the triumph of righteousness throughout the world." He considered "it neither arrogant nor presumptuous to assume to represent three millions of my brethren." He thus refused to allow his people's cause to be damaged due to "misrepresentations" of his conduct by "evil-minded men." As long as he was able "to set myself right before the public," he would. 2 The character and conduct of a representative black man and a race leader had to be spotless.

Douglass's leadership style combined an activist-reformist orientation with an emblematic-patriarchal gloss. 3 His social reforinism, especially his philosophy of agitation and vigorous resistance to oppression, informed his perception of race leadership and his actions as a race leader. He was outspoken and bold. Progressive change in the degraded status of Negro Americans demanded fiery and courageous leaders, like himself. This difficult challenge, he perceived, was just a beginning in the long and arduous process of restructuring race relations along egalitarian and just lines. The role of moral propa


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