This second guest blog post in our series on Frederick Douglass considers his legacy shortly after his death. Shawn Leigh Alexander, author of An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle Before the NAACP, observes that while the next generation of activists respected and honored Douglass for his undeniable achievements, many did not follow in his footsteps when it came to political strategy or party allegiance. Then, as now, African Americans questioned the value of affiliating with a single political party.
Activism After Douglass: Building on the Achievements, Departing from the Methods
Frederick Douglass, former slave, abolitionist, and Republican politician was the most prominent African American political leader and activist in years directly following the Civil War. In the early 1880s, however, his motto, “the Republican Party is the ship, all else is the Sea,” was losing favor among a growing segment of the black population. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s segregation increased and more importantly, African Americans were systematically disfranchised throughout the South. As blacks were stripped of their suffrage they lost the fragile footing they held in the political arena during Reconstruction and therefore the political tactics of Douglass’s generation were becoming increasingly less effective.
In response to this “revolution gone backwards,” a younger generation of activists began seeking a new model to agitate for their political and civil rights. T. Thomas Fortune, a journalist and activist in New York, was one of the most vocal advocates for change. “Enough!” Fortune argued. Douglass was a wise man but “in no sense a prophet.” Fortune urged the African American community to look out for itself first. “Throw away sentimentality in politics,” he urged, and act on the motto “Race first; then party.” In Fortune’s estimation, too many black leaders had sold out the race and themselves in the quest for power. As he explained, “Instead of loving the race, . . . each one of us seeks to get as far away from his African origin as circumstances will permit.” And in doing so, black leaders swallow “without a grimace every insult to their manhood or their rights which pseudo friends and avowed enemies have heaped upon them.” “You do not need” maintained Fortune, “to be a Democrat or a Republican to force from politicians your honest rights: You simply need to be men, conscious of your power.”
This political motto was pushed forth in 1887 when the fiery editor called for the creation of a national civil rights organization, the National Afro- American League. He had first raised the issue in early 1884 following the infamous Supreme Court decision on civil rights and the Danville, Virginia, riot of the previous year. With such backward steps taking place, the editor called for an organization that would stand as an “uncompromising defense of the race with which we are identified.” Using a line Douglass himself had used before, Fortune declared, “Let us agitate! agitate! AGITATE! until the protest shall wake the nation from its indifference.” “You must fight your own battles,” Fortune urged. “You must come together. Brave men, men of brains—these must come to the front, and laying aside all selfish and personal aims labor for the upbuilding of the race and the full concession to us of each and every right guaranteed to us by the Constitution of the United States. And the masses must sustain such men.”
The Afro-American League became the country’s first national civil rights organization, and though many were trying to move away from Douglass and his generation, they did not forget who laid the groundwork for them to protest for their rights. When the League delegates came to Chicago in January 1890 to form the organization, Douglass’ portrait was displayed on the stage as a symbol of race pride and civil rights activism. Despite many trying to find an alternative to Douglass’s model, he was still the father of the struggle and historic symbol of civil rights leadership and activism. As Fortune would later explain in poetic verse at the dedication of the Douglass Monument and the formation of the Afro-American Council:
We cannot measure here the dizzy heights he trod
To who this glyptic shaft is lifted from the sod,
Towards the matchless azure of sweet Freedom’s skies,
If we forget the depths whence God bade him arise,
Above the slave’s log cabin and a sireless birth,
To be a prince among the children of the earth!
No giant who has placed one foot upon the land
And one upon the sea, with power to them command,
To bid the angry turbulence of each be still,
And have them bend obedient to his master’s will –
Ever started lower in the social scale them than he –
This Champion of the Slave, this Spokesman of the Free!
Shawn Leigh Alexander is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and the interim director of the Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas. An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle Before the NAACP is now available.