Obama Draws From The Wisdom of Frederick Douglass

Last night, at a rally in Pittsburgh which I attended with my wife and two sons, Barack Obama ended his speech with an allusion to a famous quote by Frederick Douglass, telling the audience: "Don't believe for a second this election is over. Don't think for a minute that power will concede anything."

Of course, Senator Obama was then loosely quoting from Frederick Douglass who famously said in 1857 that

"If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation...want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

At that time, Frederick Douglass was referring to the dire need to struggle against the abominable institution of slavery, Douglass himself having been a slave into young adulthood.

It is appropriate that Obama should refer to Douglass, one of this country's greatest citizens, who had a biography similar to that of Obama. Like Obama, Douglass was also of mixed racial descent, with a mother who was an African American slave and with a father who most likely was a white slaveholder. In addition, just as Obama, Douglass came to national prominence through a speech at a major party convention. Further, Douglass, as Obama claimed earlier in the election process, believed himself at one time to be a post-racial figure. However, just as Obama discovered with the Reverend Wright controversy, Douglass himself was rudely awakened to the fact that racism would continue to rear its ugly head in his life.

For Douglass, it was actually the abolitionists associated with William Lloyd Garrison who would remind him of this fact when they began to complain that he should leave the political and moral theorizing to them, and that Douglass should limit his public remarks to descriptions about his experiences as a slave. The Garrisonians further complained that Douglass did not talk enough like a slave for their purposes, much like some have opined that Obama is somehow not "black enough."

When Obama gave his speech in Pittsburgh, he never mentioned the name of Frederick Douglass, though I presume that Douglass was on his mind when he drew from Douglass's famous quote about struggle. Like Douglass in his attempts to play a leading role in the abolitionist struggle, Obama has navigated difficult waters in attempting to win the highest office in this land. He has had to suffer racial attack even from members of his own party, such as Hilary Clinton who criticized him during the primaries for his shortcomings in winning over "hard working Americans, white Americans." Yet, Obama has weathered such blows with strength and dignity and has won over many voters in the process.

It will be a very emotional day for this country when, on November 4, if all goes well, Barack Obama becomes this nation's first black President. I predict that many Americans will feel more relieved and elated than they anticipated when this happens, for this victory will signal a profound turn from this nation's long and ugly history of slavery and racial segregation. All of us will feel better as Americans as a result. I for one will relish the moment when Senator Obama becomes President. For the first time in my adult life, I will take pride in my country and my President.

At the same time, we who have fought hard for Obama because we want an end to the war in the Middle East, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and who want profound economic and social justice, will have to be mindful of the words of Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama that power will concede nothing without struggle. And, hopefully, come January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will hold the power of the Presidency of the United States. As Obama reminded us last night in Pittsburgh, we will have to continue our struggle to gain the concessions we want from this, our new President. But, I won't worry about that struggle until November 5.