A Letter to My Ancestor: Frederick Douglass

This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way. You can see them all here.

Dear Ambassador Frederick Douglass,

I write you today full of optimism that America, the nation that once enslaved our people, continues to advance toward justice, equality, freedom and fairness for all its people.

I'm pleased to report that the battle you so valiantly led in the 19th century for equal rights and dignity has yielded great results. Your sage advice to agitate at every turn continues to inspire great men and women into action, and with each passing generation the march toward freedom and equal opportunity is moving closer to full realization.

It has required tremendous sacrifice, but today our people have reached the pinnacle in all facets of American society -- from the arts and sciences to academia, technology, business, and politics.

There is no level of achievement off limits or out of reach for African-Americans in this great country we call home.

I am especially proud to report that Americans have elected and reelected the first African-American President in the history -- Barack Hussein Obama.

Born of a marriage between a Kenyan father and a Caucasian-American mother, President Obama excelled as a student, graduating near the top of his class from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. These two elite institutions, once off limits because of the color of your skin, are now open to all with brilliant intellects.

With much the same sense of duty to his fellow man as you, President Obama began his legal career in service, choosing to be a community organizer instead of taking a high-paying job at a prestigious law firm.

In his first term, President Obama passed legislation helping millions of Americans get access to affordable health care. He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which requires equal pay for women. And he is responsible for new laws that protect consumers from predatory lenders.

It must cause you profound pride to know what your bravery and sacrifice paved the way and set the example for President Obama to become a great American president and leader of the free world.

As a member of Congress from the Deep South, I -- and my other colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus -- along with our great President -- demonstrate the great progress we've made.

While I write today with much to celebrate, much work remains. The truth is that the ugly legacy of racism continues to impact the quality of life for all Americans, regardless of color. There are whites who feel superior to Blacks, and there are Blacks who feel inferior to whites, with each blaming the other for the growing difficulty that all people face in achieving the American Dream.

Most people seem unaware that corporate influence and wealth has taken over public policy, such that government policy now favors the wealthy few at the expense of the people. As more government functions are privatized, we find political leaders defunding the public school system, shifting government funds to the private, for-profit school industry.

And we see America's prison population exploding, with America having a greater percentage of its people behind bars than any other nation in the world!

It's no wonder that the income of the private for-profit prison industry is growing. I am sad to report that African-American males have disproportionately fallen victim to the voracious appetite of the prison industrial complex, from which it is nearly impossible to overcome the stigma of being an ex-offender.

Just as you fought so staunchly for women's rights, we continue the fight for women to control their own bodies, and their own health.

Mr. Douglass, I'm pleased to report that your legacy and indeed your own descendants continue your work through the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation (FDFF) -- 150 years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

I have had the pleasure of meeting your great, great granddaughter, Nettie Washington Douglass, who chairs the Foundation, and continues the difficult work you started. I proudly joined with her in urging President Obama to issue you posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

My vow is to continue raising awareness that all people are created equal, endowed by their creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, color, or wealth. It is my vow is to fulfill the courageous legacy you advanced more than 150 years ago. Brother Douglass, thank you for your work and inspiring legacy. I will strive to be worthy of your thoughts, words and deeds.

With warmest regards, I remain

Hank Johnson, member of Congress