What White Southerners Can Learn from Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass lived an extraordinary life. He was, along with Abraham Lincoln, one of the “two preeminent self-made men in American history”, according to Harvard University scholar John Stauffer. Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838, electrified the Northern abolitionist movement, helped Lincoln win the Civil War and led his people during our nation’s most turbulent years. While almost every American knows of Lincoln’s accomplishments, though, Douglass is today (for most white people at least) an obscure historical figure. During this Black History Month, what can a white Southerner like me learn from Douglass’ life?

Lesson 1: Slavery Was So Much Worse Than We Realize

White Southerners don’t like to talk about slavery. When the topic comes up – and especially when a black person brings it up – many white folks hastily respond with “But that was hundreds of years ago.” When we listen to Douglass’ words, though, it’s hard to escape the fact that slavery fundamentally shaped both black and white Americans’ experiences. Looking at slavery through his first-hand account makes it more difficult for us as white folks to wave away the historical depredations of the slave system as irrelevant to a present-day discussion of racial inequality.

Douglass published his autobiography in 1845 to expose the atrocities of the slave system. His first-hand written account – along with his brilliant oratory – bolstered the abolitionist cause in the North. At a time when Southern slaveholders were vigorously defending the “peculiar institution” in the court of public opinion, Douglass’ detailed portrayal of the lives of slaves shocked Northern readers.

Slavery, in Douglass’ withering account, was kept alive through sheer terror, with whipping and the threat of whipping being the overseer’s chief tactic. Since slaves were considered mere property, marriages between them were not recognized. Therefore, families were routinely torn apart: man, woman and child were separated as masters sold or hired out individual family members. “Slavery has no use for either fathers or families,” Douglass wrote, “and its laws do not recognize their existence in the social arrangements of the plantation.”

What’s more, masters could father a child with a female slave, and the child was considered the master’s slave, not his son or daughter. (Douglass himself guessed that his master was also his father.) “This arrangement,” he wrote, “admits of the greatest license to brutal slaveholders, and their profligate sons, brothers, relations and friends, and gives to the pleasure of sin, the additional attraction of profit.”

Douglass described other cruelties of the slave system that undermined the personhood of the slave. Masters actively discouraged reading (“Ignorance is a high virtue in a human chattel”, Douglass wrote), and Douglass’ master disbanded the Sunday school that he organized for his fellow slaves because they were learning to read the Bible.

Southern society claimed that the slave system was in the best interest of both white and black people – the latter being intellectually inferior, unable to manage their own affairs and therefore born for service to white slaveholders. (The latter were cast, in this twisted narrative, as benevolent caretakers). Douglass represented a triple threat to this narrative: First, the sheer brilliance of the rhetoric of this man who was born and raised in slavery and had no formal education decimated the argument that blacks were intellectually inferior. Second, the slaveholders were unmasked in his account as nothing more than brutes and idlers, growing fat on the unpaid labor of others. Third, during the Civil War, he successfully campaigned for blacks to take up arms for the Union, leading to the formation of units such as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that was immortalized in the 1989 film Glory.

Lesson 2: Let Black People Lead

In 1841, three years after his escape from slavery to New England, Douglass was encouraged by the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to speak to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention in Nantucket. Of the speech, one correspondent wrote, “Flinty hearts were pierced, and cold ones melted by his eloquence.” Through his soaring oratory and his vivid descriptions of his life in slavery, Douglass won hearts and minds to the abolitionist cause and a place for himself in the leadership of the abolitionist movement. But many of the white abolitionists, though they despised slavery, were unready to share leadership with a black man. They told him he was too eloquent – that no one believe he was a slave unless he “have a little of the plantation manner of speech”. “Tis best,” his friends said, “not to seem too learned.”

Seven years later, Douglass would formally challenge his friend Garrison and other key Boston abolitionists by advocating a different set of policies. Garrison believed in the break-up of the Union, allowing the errant South to go its own way, while Douglass believed that slaves in the South should not be abandoned. In 1848, Douglass began his own abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, New York, through which he espoused his views. According to Stauffer, the Boston abolitionists “Considered it ‘absurd’ for an ex-slave, ‘brought up in the very depths of ignorance,’ to pretend that he could be a successful editor. A fugitive orator who bared his back to a shocked audience was one thing; an editor who enlightened educated readers on the principles of liberty, justice and humanity was something else entirely!” (For the record, Douglass was right, and Garrison and the rest came around to his point of view.)

In retrospect, it seems absurd that the abolitionist movement would spurn black leadership. But do white Southerners unconsciously repeat Garrison’s mistake? I believe we do so, whenever we talk about neighborhood revitalization in predominately African-American communities without allowing black voices to guide the conversation. And we do so whenever a white church goes into an African-American neighborhood to start a new ministry without first partnering with local black churches and community leaders and letting them shape the ministry.

Of course, there are some fantastic models here in Chattanooga of collaborative leadership. Mayor Andy Berke’s appointment of Lurone Jennings as the head of the city’s Youth and Family Development department was brilliant, both because he is the most qualified person for the job and because he is more familiar with the social problems that plague urban families and young people than any outsider (or anyone from the suburbs of Chattanooga, for that matter) ever could be. Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church’s model of engagement is exemplary. Rather than coming up with their own version of urban ministry, the church has developed a strong partnership with a thriving black church in St. Elmo – Church of the First Born – and folks from Lookout Presbyterian show up at ministry events not to lead, but to serve.

Lesson 3: Be Willing to Listen to Criticism – Even Angry Criticism

Frederick Douglass’ words were not – and are not – always easy for even sympathetic white people to hear. Of course he enraged Southern slaveholding society with remarks such as this one: “Slaveholders… are only a band of successful robbers, who left their homes and went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” But he also at times spoke hard truths to would-be allies.

It may come as a surprise that Douglass, who was in later life one of President Lincoln’s great admirers, was in 1861 and 1862 one of his harshest critics. We must remember that the Lincoln who took office in 1861 was a different man than the Great Emancipator of just two years later. During the 1860 presidential campaign, Lincoln had opposed the extension of slavery into new states and territories but not the abolition of slavery in the South. In his first inaugural address, he vowed to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, in an attempt to placate Southern states. He went on in that speech to declare, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Douglass, in response, remarked that Lincoln was “a genuine proslavery president”.

Even after war broke out, Lincoln made it clear that he would allow the Southern states to end their rebellion and return to the Union without giving up the slave system. Douglass responded by carrying out in his newspaper a two-year campaign of opposition to Lincoln’s conciliatory policies.

As the war progressed, Lincoln’s views changed. His war aims broadened, from simply preserving the Union to ending slavery in America, and Frederick Douglass played a role in that transformation. Douglass had forcefully argued not only for the moral rectitude but also for the military expediency of making the war into an abolition war and arming black men. And Lincoln radically changed his policies, first issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and later championing the Thirteenth Amendment that forever abolished slavery in America.

Ultimately, Douglass praised Lincoln for dealing the death blow to slavery, giving honor to the man he had so sharply criticized. Stauffer writes, “At a time when most whites would not let a black man cross their threshold, Lincoln met Douglass three times at the White House. Their friendship was chiefly utilitarian: Lincoln needed Douglass to help him destroy the Confederacy; Douglass knew that Lincoln could help him end slavery. But they also genuinely liked and admired each other.”

Lincoln was a big enough person to hear Douglass’ criticism, even public criticism, and respond to it thoughtfully – even to change his mind. Are we? When people get upset about inequality and criticize present-day social structures, do we listen or do we write them off? Christena Cleveland, a Christian social psychologist, writes: “[P]rivileged folks typically prefer to only listen to oppressed people when the oppressed people are speaking in a polite, kind and non-accusatory manner…. When oppressed people raise their voices, angrily point out injustices or speak out in a way that makes privileged people uncomfortable, privileged folks often opt to shut down the conversation.”

On December 19, the Times Free Press hosted a forum in Alton Park on the topic of “Race, Reconciliation and Truth-Telling”. The main focus of the event was the city’s new violence reduction initiative. Many people in the audience were angry about past police actions, including the fact that the former chief of police had rounded up 32 black men and called them “the worst of the worst” criminals in the Chattanooga area. I disagree with many of the views expressed that night, and I believe that the mayor’s crime reduction initiative represents a real chance for police and neighborhoods to partner together.

But I also listened to their anger. After all, millions of young African-American men are sent to prison and then are relegated to a second-class citizen status in our country. (And by the way, is it really possible that our city’s 32 worst offenders are all black men?) It is enough to make someone angry. As Cleveland says: “Privileged people who are truly committed to standing in solidarity with oppressed folks must also commit to knowing, bearing and even being targeted by their anger. Only then can the factors that have contributed to the anger be truly addressed.”

This Black History Month, let’s celebrate Frederick Douglass, my favorite American of the nineteenth century. And let’s listen to his words and his life, so that we can build a stronger society together.

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And Now, For Some Good News…

An understanding of Chattanooga’s urban core is incomplete without an acknowledgement of some pretty spectacular home-grown success stories.  One such story can be found at Adonai Academy, a Christian school located near UTC in the historic Fort Wood neighborhood. The school, which was founded by the staff and families of New Home Missionary Baptist Church, educates kids in grades pre-K through 10. Full disclosure: My two sons have attended Adonai for a year now, and its small classroom sizes and dedicated teaching staff have been of tremendous benefit in their development as students and as people. Take five minutes out of your day to watch this video that tells the story of a very unique school in our city.

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The Evacuation of Patten Towers: A Protracted Humanitarian Crisis in the Heart of Our City

Patten Towers, a high-rise apartment building located downtown between the Pickle Barrel and City Hall, was evacuated last week when a fire broke out in the basement, leaving 241 residents without a permanent address. The response of our city’s government and nonprofit community (especially the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army) has been impressive, but a week after the fire the evacuees are still in need of our support as they await word as to when and whether they’ll be able to return to their apartments.

Some quick background, for those who haven’t been following the story:

  • Late in the evening on Tuesday, May 28, an electrical fire broke out in the building’s basement. It appears that poor maintenance of the property contributed to the fire.
  • All of the building’s 241 residents were evacuated and have been told that they won’t be able to return for 6 to 8 weeks due to extensive damage to the building’s systems.
  • Patten Towers is a subsidized housing facility, meaning that its residents are lower-income folks who receive government housing assistance. Most of them are senior citizens or have a disability.
  • For five days, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are ran an emergency shelter for the evacuees at the Brainerd Recreation Center on Moore Road.
  • Some of the Patten Tower residents’ friends or families have taken them in, but over 100 remained in the shelter until Monday, when they were relocated to several area hotels.
  • With Riverbend fast approaching, most hotel rooms in the downtown area are booked over the weekend and into next week. That means that the Patten Towers residents have only a few days before they will be moved again, although they’ve been given no definite information regarding what happens next.
  • Mayor Andy Berke’s staff has been working tirelessly on behalf of the evacuees and to hold the property’s landlord, PK Management, to task. Jeff Cannon, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, was a constant presence at the Brainerd Rec Center while that facility was being used as an emergency shelter.
  • The Times Free Press had called this set of events “the longest and largest humanitarian disaster in Chattanooga since Hurricane Katrina”. Since the evacuees are poor, many of them have no resources to draw upon or friends or family with a spare bedroom to call upon. Last Tuesday’s fire thrust their lives into complete chaos, literally overnight.

    I was one of four from my church, The Mission Chattanooga, who went to the Brainerd Rec Center on Sunday morning to help serve breakfast to the evacuees, and I was impressed with both the efficiency and professionalism of the Red Cross and Salvation Army staff and with the positive attitudes of most of the evacuees. “Nobody had to come out here and feed us and give us medicine,” one man told me, “but they did, and that means a lot to us.”

    In the coming days, as the next steps for the Patten Towers evacuees become clearer, we as a community need to be prepared to do more for these men and women. The property owner is responsible for making sure they have decent shelter until Patten Towers is brought back online, and Mayor Berke is right to hold the landlord to task. To the extent that additional services are needed, though, between now and the time the evacuees return to their homes, we need to be ready to answer the call of the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other agencies who are working to make sure that the elderly and disabled evacuees’ basic needs are met during this waiting period.

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    Helping Without Hurting in Chattanooga

    “Have you ever done anything to help poor people?… Have you ever done anything to hurt poor people?” These words appear in the forward to When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, a book that deeply challenges our notions of what it means to help the materially disadvantaged.

    Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett of The Chalmers Center at Covenant College.

    The book, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, begins by affirming the Bible’s mandate to care for poor people. (Its opening lines quote the Book of First John, which says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”) It provides a framework for understanding poverty. (Hint: It’s not just about a lack of material things.) And it focuses in on the methods with which Christians have tried to alleviate poverty.

    As it turns out, when we give a man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish, we can actually be exalting ourselves and hurting the recipient of the handout. The authors recount the true story of a church whose members decided to wrap presents and take them into a low-income neighborhood in their city, delivering them door to door and singing Christmas carols. After doing so year after year, the church members realized they were only worsening the feelings of shame and inadequacy of fathers who could not buy Christmas presents for their children.

    In contrast to this superficial approach to poverty alleviation that can actually make matters worse, Fikkert and Corbett offer a different path: “By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.”

    But how do we do this? What help can we offer that’s actually, well, helpful? That’s the topic of an upcoming seminar called Helping Without Hurting, to be held at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Chattanooga on Saturday, April 13.  (Click here for more information.)

    As Fikkert and Corbett put it in When Helping Hurts: “We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.” The Helping Without Hurting seminar on April 13 will help you to yearn and strive, and it will also give you some concrete steps to take towards action in our community and around the world.

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    Building a Better Block in East Chattanooga

    Chattanooga loves to change. Our city began as a small trading outpost on the banks of the Tennessee River. It later became a famous railroad stop. Once notorious for its pollution, it cleaned itself up and became greener. Today, it continues that culture of transformation by paying attention to areas that have been long overlooked and restructuring them into gems the entire metropolitan area can enjoy. Glass Street, located in East Chattanooga at the foot of Missionary Ridge, is one such neighborhood.

    Volunteers prepare for the February 23 Better Block event.

    On Saturday, February 23, Glass Street will undergo a one-day transformation in an initiative known as Better Block. The event promises two key benefits for the community: a day-long celebration, including art, food, shopping and entertainment, and a vision for the long-term redevelopment of the Glass Street neighborhood. Continue reading

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    Top Seven Stories of 2012 from Chattanooga’s Inner City

    Here’s a recap of the biggest stories of 2012 from Chattanooga’s inner city:
    1. The Shooting of Keoshia Ford
    2. The Chattanooga Community Responds to Gang Violence
    3. All Eyes on Howard
    4. The Urban Food Desert Gets Worse… And Then a Little Better
    5. The Bessie Smith Strut Lives!
    6. Harriet Tubman Closes
    7. Chattanooga’s Hispanic Community Steps out of the Sidelines

    1. The Shooting of Keoshia Ford

    March 17 was the first truly beautiful day of 2012 – a fine Saturday with sunny skies and temperatures in the high seventies. As dusk approached, 13-year-old Keoshia Ford was playing with friends and enjoying barbeque at a block party on Bennett Avenue in Highland Park. Suddenly, a group of gang members drove up and began firing into the crowd. Someone fired back, and Keoshia was struck in the head by a stray bullet. Nine months later, with the bullet still lodged behind her left ear, Keoshia is unable to walk, talk or feed herself, and she requires round-the-clock care.

    Chattanooga has a higher per-capita violent crime rate than three quarters of mid-sized and large US cities.

    Sadly, Keoshia’s shooting is not an isolated incident. As of the beginning of this month, Chattanooga had registered nearly 75 shootings and 22 homicides in 2012. (At this point last year, there had been 23 homicides.) Although our city’s violent crime rate has fallen over the past four years, data compiled by the FBI shows that we still have a higher rate of violent crime than three-quarters of U.S. cities with 100,000 people or more.

    Violence continues to plague our urban communities, and the gun culture has even encroached upon our schools: On October 25, two Brainerd High School students were taken into custody for bringing a gun to school, and within the last three weeks, shots have been fired outside of both Brainerd and Tyner Academy during or after basketball games.

    The shooting of Keoshia Ford on that beautiful March day was a tragedy in its own right. It was also a flashpoint in our city’s struggle to prevent and suppress violent crime – especially amongst our city’s young people. Continue reading

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    By the Numbers: Crime in Chattanooga

    How bad is crime in Chattanooga? It’s a seemingly simple question, and of course one could simply (and correctly) respond that it’s “unacceptably bad”. But how bad is it relative to our peers? A 2010 Ochs Center report made headline by citing FBI crime statistics that showed that Chattanooga had the 11th worst crime rate of any city of 100,000 people or more. But how should we interpret that number? And what do the recent trends show? The following chart, which shows data from the FBI’s “Crime in the United States” site, attempts to shed some light on the topic: Continue reading

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