Civics lessons from Black Americans: Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass

Written by Derek Monson

February 24, 2021

This week marks the end of Black History Month – a time to celebrate African Americans’ achievements and vital contributions in the history of our nation. One way to do so is to recognize the lessons that remarkable Black Americans have taught us in what they said and how they lived.

Two such Black Americans were Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass. Wells’ brave and courageous effort to correct misinformation and false media narratives illuminate what we need in our current media environment, while Douglass’s objectivity and candor teach us the way to unity despite disagreement.

Courage to uncover truth: Ida B. Wells

The life of Ida B. Wells illustrates a devotion to uncovering truth as courageous and admirable as that of any American in history. She was born into slavery during the Civil War, orphaned at 16 years old after her parents and brother died of yellow fever, and later became a journalist and activist during the late 1800s and early 1900s. After three of her friends – Black grocery store owners – were attacked, arrested and then dragged out of jail and lynched by a white mob in 1892 (known as the People’s Grocery lynching) it spurred Wells “to count, investigate and report lynchings in America as no one had done before, hurling her 5ft frame into hostile territory with all the fearlessness of a war reporter.”

At a time in the American South when Black Americans were regularly tortured, murdered and even dismembered (for the sake of distributing “souvenirs” to onlookers), a solitary, petite Black journalist spent months traveling the South alone with only a pistol for protection. Examining photos of victims and onlooking mobs, studying local news stories, recording sworn statements from witnesses, and hiring the occasional private investigator, Wells researched more than 700 lynchings so that the victims’ deaths would be properly and accurately recorded and revealed to the American public. One impact of her endeavor was to “destroy[] the mainstream media’s narratives that suggested lynching victims were criminals – often rapists of white women – who got their just [deserts].”

Eventually, a mob destroyed her printing press in Memphis in retaliation for uncovering the truth and threated to kill her if she came back. Instead, she toured America and Britain speaking out about lynching in the South. She eventually published a pamphlet that became the first statistical record of the history of lynching in America. She reportedly said that “one had better die fighting injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap” – a motto she clearly applied in her professional life.

In a world of social-media-driven – and too often accepted – misinformation and disinformation, Wells’ devotion to the truth is a shining example of the character required of citizens in a democratic republic. If more Americans today had the courage and determination of Ida B. Wells – along with the strength of character required to face the discomfort of changing our views to reflect truth – unfounded conspiracy theories would be powerless and there would be less toxicity and divisiveness in our politics.

Unity despite disagreement: Frederick Douglass

We are not the first Americans to live in a time of great political polarization and division, especially around issues such as racial inequity and inequality. Frederick Douglass was a largely self-educated, escaped former slave who was asked in 1852 to speak in New York about the meaning of Independence Day. In that speech, titled “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass showed us how to seek unity despite divisive, dramatic and degrading racial inequality.

In the beginning of the speech, Douglass recounted with admiration the accomplishments, values, character and principles of the Founders. He stated:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too — great enough to give fame to a great age….The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

However, in the latter portion of his speech, he offered a chilling description of the inhuman reality of slavery in a nation celebrating independence from tyranny and oppression. That stark and brutal racial inequality made Independence Day ring hollow for Black Americans:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

In what must appear to be rhetorical whiplash to some with modern sensibilities, Douglass showed in a single speech how to build unity that can change society across significant political – even moral – divides. First, objectively recognize those things worthy of respect, dignity and common admiration in those with whom you disagree. Second, share with candor your disagreement with them and what can be done to resolve it.

The first step is necessary to unity despite division because people have a desire to feel basic respect from another before they feel drawn to stand with them. The second step is sufficient for unity because once people feel genuinely respected by others, they become better able to see things from another’s viewpoint and are naturally drawn to seek common resolution of problems. If our current politics incorporated more of the respect combined with candor shown by Douglass in this 1852 speech, it could go a long way toward resolving many of the tricky political and policy disagreements that exist today.

Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass represent just two of the countless Black Americans who we can learn from as we tackle today’s urgent political and policy problems. By learning from those who were willing to put everything on the line for something bigger than themselves, and then putting those lessons into action, we can overcome the highest obstacles and conquer the most difficult challenges – just as they did.

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