Frederick Douglass Is Still the Point Man on Voting Rights

As of late few intervals in American historical past maintain extra curiosity for us than the Reconstruction period of the 1860s and 1870s. Our struggles with voter suppression laws and the policing of Black communities are all too typically nothing a lot as extensions of the racial legacy of the post-Civil Battle period.

It’s this connection between previous and current that makes Robert S. Levine’s The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson particularly well timed. Levine begins by telling us that the promise of Reconstruction “stays unfulfilled to at the present time,” however it’s not some extent he has to emphasize. The Supreme Courtroom’s determination this July 1 upholding Arizona’s new voter restriction legal guidelines within the case of Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee is all of the reminder we want of how the current battle for Black voting rights goes straight again to 1870 and the passage of the Fifteenth Modification, which prevents states from denying the proper to vote on account of race or shade.

The hero of Levine’s guide is Frederick Douglass. In his portrait of Douglass, Levine’s purpose is to transcend the histories of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, that concentrate on the Radical Republicans. Levine’s intention is to maneuver Douglass and his African-American contemporaries “from the background to the foreground of the 4 years of Reconstruction beneath Johnson.”

In Andrew Johnson, Levine has the proper foil to Douglass. Johnson proclaimed himself to be the Moses who would lead Black Individuals to their freedom. He considered himself as a worthy presidential successor to Lincoln regardless of the opposed affect his actions had on America’s former slaves. Johnson noticed nothing to remorse when in 1865 he issued an Amnesty Proclamation that pardoned most ex-Accomplice leaders in the event that they pledged loyalty to the Structure and the Union. And he noticed nothing dangerous in his 1866 veto of Congress’s extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the important thing establishment for distributing meals and clothes to the 4 million newly freed slaves within the South.

Levine resists the temptation to caricature Johnson. He sees him as a posh determine, noting that after Johnson left the presidency, he made a political comeback, successful election to the Senate from Tennessee. Levine’s level shouldn’t be that Johnson deserves to be redeemed however that he has been given an excessive amount of blame for the failures of Reconstruction. “There’s something shortsighted in conceiving of the failure of Reconstruction because the fault of 1 white man,” Levine argues. “The stigmatization of Johnson permits for hypothesis {that a} completely different chief would have guided the nation to interracial reconciliation.”

In Levine’s judgment the Radical Republicans must be seen as having performed a serious position within the failures of Reconstruction. Their very own racism was a legal responsibility that hampered them all through the post-Civil Battle years. Levine notes how on the Southern Loyalists’ Conference, which happened in Philadelphia in September 1866, Douglass was handled with disdain. Even earlier than he acquired to the conference, quite a lot of Republican delegates urged him to not attend as a result of his very presence made so many of their celebration uneasy.

For Levine, Douglass’ willingness to face down racism from northern Republicans, reasonably than settle for it, was emblematic of his bigger imaginative and prescient. Levine emphasizes the excellence Douglass made between theoretical rights and precise proper when it comes to day-to-day politics. In a lecture he delivered in 1876, the 12 months of America’s centennial, Douglass pointedly requested his white viewers, “What does all of it quantity to, if the black man, after having been made free by the letter of your regulation, is unable to train that freedom?”

In Levine’s judgment what is particularly compelling about Douglass is the lengthy view he took of the enduring legacy of slavery. Douglass by no means overpassed the time it will take to undo the injury of slavery. “There isn’t any such factor as instantaneous emancipation,” Douglass noticed three years after the Thirteenth Modification ending slavery turned regulation. “The hyperlinks of the chain could also be damaged instantly, however it would take not lower than a century to obliterate all traces of the establishment.”

Douglass’ lengthy view of the legacy of slavery enabled him to maintain going at a interval in his life when he had each cause to really feel discouraged. The surge in lynching within the Eighties and the Supreme Courtroom’s 1883 determination declaring the Civil Rights Acts of 1875 unconstitutional mirrored the backward steps the nation took in Douglass’ later years. His loss of life in 1895 spared him from having to deal a 12 months later with the Supreme Courtroom’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson determination that made “separate however equal” the regulation of the land, however Douglass wouldn’t have wished to be spared from the battle over Plessy v. Ferguson.

Had been he alive at the moment, it’s straightforward to think about Douglass taking satisfaction within the removing of the statue of Robert E. Lee from its pedestal on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. However his biggest power would have been dedicated to countering the assaults on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nothing hyperlinks Douglass to the current second greater than his perception that the federal authorities, not the states, should be the final word guarantor of voting rights.

John Lewis’ proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act now languishing in Congress—which updates the ability of the Justice Division to approve any modifications in voting legal guidelines in states or political subdivisions with a document of discrimination—can be a standard sense treatment to Douglass. He even had a reputation for what follows when Black Individuals are systematically excluded from their proper to vote: “emasculated citizenship” he referred to as it.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American literature at Sarah Lawrence School and writer of Like a Holy Campaign: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Motion in America. | Frederick Douglass Is Nonetheless the Level Man on Voting Rights


ClareFora is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. ClareFora joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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