The Mind of Frederick Douglass

By Waldo E. Martin Jr. | Go to book overview

4. Humanism, Race, and Leadership

Douglass's approach to race leadership exemplified his egalitarian humanism. A deep-rooted moral ethos anchored this enlightened vision of human oneness and equality. Douglass's philosophy of racial leadership thus clearly reflected his life's philosophy. In a sense, these philosophies were synonymous, for he envisioned his personal destiny as inextricably bound with that of his race. He sincerely believed that his people's liberation necessitated that they follow those principles which he found conducive to freedom in his own life. A natural outgrowth primarily of his personal experiences and of Enlightenment and bourgeois thought, Douglass's philosophy of race leadership was eclectic and intricate. America's absurd racial reality, however, blatantly contradicted reason and progress. The impact of this basic contradiction on his philosophy of race leadership and his thought in general can be seen in the paradox of humanism and race and the irony of complexional institutions.

Douglass's lifelong dedication to understanding and alleviating America's race-conscious fixation grew paradoxically out of his deep-seated sense of racial responsibility as well as his even more deep-rooted egalitarian humanism. His race leadership graphically illustrated the inherent tension between his race consciousness and his humanism. The politics of race leadership -- for him and other black leaders in the humanist mode, notably Martin Luther King, Jr. -- epitomized the worldwide struggles for human rights. The most revealing aspect of Douglass's approach as a race leader, however, was its assimilationist and integrationist thrust: the paradox of using race leadership to help realize a nation devoid of race-consciousness. His raceless vision thus contradicted his role and image as racial patriarch; it undermined the view of a narrow emblematic conception of his leadership. He envisioned his leadership role catholically; ultimately, he spoke for all mankind, not just blacks.

In a letter to Senator Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, a stalwart New Jersey Republican, thanking him for his prominent role in the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, Douglass observed that "the colored man was charged with a want of self-respect, a want of race pride, because he asked for this Bill. How absurd. It is precisely because he has this sentiment natural to all men that we opposed all discrimination against us on the score of race." Speaking before the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in New York City in

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