I apologize for a long post, but if you read it you might learn something as I did writing it. Recently, some BLM supporters wanted to tear down the Freedman Statue in Lincoln Park in Washington, DC.
Erected in 1876, the monument depicts Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing a male African American slave . The ex-slave is depicted on one knee, with one fist clenched, shirtless and broken shackles at the president’s feet.
The Emancipation Memorial statue was funded by the wages of freed slaves.
The intent of the design was to show the slave rising from his slavery. Many wish the slave had been standing, including Frederick Douglass who spoke at the dedication of the memorial.
During the protests and the attempt to pull it down, several local black elders came to tell the protesters what the memorial’s meaning was and what it meant to them. One was even dressed as Frederick Douglass. This was a moment in courage and integrity for them to stand up for what they believed in the face of the mob. I believe Frederick Douglass would approve and be proud of them.
With all of that as background, I really want to focus on what I learned about Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Here comes the long part.
The two first met in August 1863, and Douglass was not expecting a friendly encounter. After black soldiers had proven themselves worthy on the battlefield, Douglass had come to Washington to argue that justice demanded equal pay for their efforts. Following a cold reception from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Douglass took his case to the White House.
When he presented his card, he found that, instead of being asked to wait in a long line of office seekers, he was moved to the front of the line. He entered Lincoln’s office to find him completely informal and sprawled out on a sofa reading, with his “feet in different parts of the room.” Hearing Douglass enter, Lincoln stood to greet him saying, “Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you.” Lincoln’s reception of him was “just as you have seen one gentleman receive another,” Douglass would later say. There was nothing affected in Lincoln’s tone or manner. “I have never seen a more transparent countenance,” reported Douglass. He left so impressed with Lincoln’s defense of his policies and with the firmness of his positions–to say nothing of his genuine sympathies with the black troops–that Douglass no longer felt the same level of dissatisfaction on the question of unequal pay. He knew something now that was even more crucial. Emancipation would stand.
In 1864 Lincoln had another meeting with Douglass to discuss what might be the alarming fate of those slaves still behind Confederate lines. In the midst of a war in which the existence of the nation was at stake–and an election in which Lincoln’s (and the nation’s) political future was at stake–Lincoln made time to inquire what might be done for those enslaved men and women who would be beyond his assistance in the event of a failure in the war or the election. Douglass again was impressed by Lincoln’s “deep moral conviction” on the question of slavery and with his brutal honesty about the prospects ahead. And he was taken with Lincoln’s seeming disregard for any prevailing or habitual notions that there should be anything other than perfect equality between them. “In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color,” said Douglass. Indeed, Lincoln was the only white person of prominence about whom Douglass was ever able to say such words. Considering the large number of prominent abolitionists and Christian reformers with whom Douglass was in frequent communication, this is an impressive testament.
As fate would have it, the last time these two American friends saw each other was on the occasion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Douglass listened to the speech with the crowd and thought it contained some “brave good words.” Afterward, he went to the Executive Mansion to attend the reception, but was not allowed to enter. When he sent word to Lincoln that he was being detained, the president ordered that he be admitted. Douglass found Lincoln in the elegant East Room, standing “like a mountain pine…in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty.” Lincoln said, “Here comes my friend,” and took Douglass by the hand. “I am glad to see you,” said the president. Then he asked Douglass how he liked his address, for “there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” Douglass famously said, in words that aptly sum up the work to which their lives had been devoted, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
At a time of extreme racism and hatred of blacks, these two men showed then and now, what we can be capable of if, in Douglass’ words, “In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color.” I don’t doubt that Martin Luther King may have had Frederick Douglass in mind when he gave his I Have A Dream Speech:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
King delivered that speech before the Lincoln Memorial. I believe, like Douglass, he might have preferred the slave to be standing on the Freedman statue, but like Douglass he was looking at bigger things.
So, what did I learn. Several things.
First, Frederick Douglass was a man of integrity. His actions matched his words. His life exemplifies precisely what’s missing in today’s politics. He lived his life beholden only to his heartfelt beliefs—not a partisan political agenda. He loved God, his family, and his country.
Second, Douglass did love his country and was thankful to all the Union soldiers who died to bring unity back to his country and end slavery. His words; “If now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage…and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty and civilization, we are indebted to the…noble army.”
Finally, He was a Christian. Speaking on his own conversion to Christianity, Douglass wrote:
“I finally found my burden lightened and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever.”
In fact, decades after being subjugated to the evils of the slave system, Douglass accepted his former master’s invitation to sit at his bedside as his master took his last breaths. Somehow, even after enduring years in chains as another “christian” man’s property, Douglass demonstrated the powerful Christian ethic of forgiveness and loving one’s enemy.
I think this was the most important element of the connection he and Lincoln had with each other as Lincoln also believed in God.
“Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.” (Lincoln’s farewell address as he left for Washington, DC to take up his duties as president.)
Why was this important? It’s only through the good news of Jesus Christ and what he did on the cross for all men of every tribe and nation that two men can see beyond skin color, political affiliation, etc., and find that connection that makes them brothers.
I used the title for this post as “So Much Forgotten.” For the protesters the title could also be “So Much Never Learned.”
Back in elementary and high school, I learned about the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, even in Southern schools.
I was raised to see each man or woman as an individual. I was taught that I was totally responsible for my thoughts, beliefs, actions and reactions. I still hold those beliefs today.
I wonder if the schools today teach anything about these two great men and what it means to live a life of integrity as they did.