A Frederick Douglass statue is one of the latest victims in a long string of monument defacement over the past several weeks. 

On the 168th anniversary of Douglass’ famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” his statue was torn from its base in Rochester, New York, and significantly damaged. 

The Rev. Dean Nelson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, joins the show to discuss the statue’s defacement, the significance of Douglass’ 1852 speech, and what the abolitionist might say to us today were he still with us. 

We also cover these stories:

  • The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states can’t keep their representatives in the Electoral College from ignoring voters’ wishes when they elect a president.
  • The Dakota Access Pipeline is being shut down. 
  • President Donald Trump weighed in on NASCAR’S decision to ban the Confederate flag. 

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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Reverend Dean Nelson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. Reverend Nelson, it is such a joy having you back on the show today. Thanks for joining us.

The Rev. Dean Nelson: Thanks so much for being here. It’s always a pleasure to be with you.

Allen: Now, I do wish that we were meeting and talking under happier circumstances, but unfortunately, we’re in the midst of a really challenging time in our nation’s history. And as tensions continue to rise, we’re seeing that mobs are taking out a lot of their anger and frustration on America’s statutes.

Sunday was the 168th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’ famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” and that was delivered in Rochester, New York. And the statue of Douglass in Rochester was torn down from its base and badly damaged on this anniversary.

I want to talk a little bit more about that in just a moment. But first, I’d like to talk about that speech that Douglass delivered in 1852. Can you tell us a little bit about this famous speech and who it was delivered to?

Nelson: Sure. … It was a famous speech and it has become even more popular over the last several years. And one of the reasons that I felt the need to write about it is because, when I hear people reciting the speech, when I’ve even seen online copies of the speech, I’ve noticed that there have been portions of it that have been eliminated.

To be perfectly honest, if you were to search, you are probably more likely to find a copy that does not have it in its entirety than you will to find one in its entirety.

So, Douglass gave it in 1852, [it] was kind of set up for him to speak on the fifth, which, at the time, was customary for African Americans to not honor or celebrate the Fourth of July, and they would actually commemorate it or do things on the fifth. And so Douglass did, he was speaking to a largely white audience there in Rochester, most of whom were abolitionists and kind of part of that crowd.

So if you think about it, even though in that time period New York did not have slavery, much of America, particularly in the South, did have slavery. And so Douglass takes the opportunity to really challenge what is going on in the culture, as an abolitionist. He laid the hammer down quite hard.

Most of the people that day, though, applauded him at the end of his remarks because Douglass always left with hope. And at the end of his speech, he left with hope—hope for America to be something different in the future, for America to live up to its founding principles and ideals.

Allen: Yeah, well, we certainly need that hope today. But like you said, he didn’t mince words. He brought the hammer down in the speech. He was very clear, he was very direct.

One of the famous lines of the speech reads, “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in the Declaration of Independence extended to us?”

And this is really a sobering reality that for so long, July Fourth was not a day to celebrate freedom for African Americans. Could you just share a little bit more of your own thoughts on Douglass’ words?

Nelson: Sure. America, as it’s been said, and I think Douglass would emphasize this, has a complex history. You had people like Crispus Attucks, who did fight during the Revolutionary War for independence. You did have some free blacks in America. But the reality is that America has that dual foundation, where half of it wanted to keep slavery and half of it wanted it to be free.

So Douglass has his own evolution. When he first escaped from slavery and joined [William Lloyd] Garrison and the Garrisonians, he believed that the Constitution was something that was a pro-slavery document. He believed, as the Garrisonians did, that America and its founding principles really were not worth revamping or reforming. He felt that they should be completely done away with.

But he has his evolution, and believes that America actually is worth fighting for, and is worth holding her to account, and ended up stating that he felt … that the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.

He says, “Read its preamble, consider its purposes.” He says, “Is slavery among them?” He says, “Is it at the gateway or is it at the temple?” And goes on to really affirm that the Constitution is in fact a pro-liberty document, and not a pro-slavery document.

Allen: Wow. And all these years later, obviously, just a couple of days ago as a nation, we celebrated our freedom and independence on July Fourth. … Do you think you can kind of speak for the African American [community] and say, “Today, yes, July Fourth is seen as a day of freedom and independence,” or is that maybe another day?

Nelson: No. I was raised in this country to think and to know that, while America had its challenges and its blemishes, that it was a country fundamentally that had moved forward. I mean, if you think about those founding documents that refer to us as kind of a more perfect union, this idea that we could move forward and that we could advance. And that’s how I’ve always seen it.

In fact, I’m reading recently, believe it was in 1964, 87% of black Americans said that America was worth fighting for. And so I think that the narrative that is being pushed today is one that almost causes us to try to throw out the baby with the bath water.

We certainly have challenges within our culture that we still want to overcome, but America has made great strides and is still the most free country in the world. And I believe that if we commit ourselves to those founding principles and working together, we can see a better America for our children.

Allen: And how do we go about living in the tension of those two realities? Because you’re right. I mean, my goodness, we’ve come such a long way as a nation and it’s incredible to see and it’s encouraging. But the reality is, we do have a dark past of slavery. And we don’t want to forget that, but we also don’t want to get stuck there. How do we move forward, but also kind of remember the weight of our history?

Nelson: I think that our organization has firmly been committed to what we call providing an alternative vision for black progress, other than what say Black Lives Matter, as an organization, not necessarily the movement per se, there are many, I think, fine people who are standing … taking courageous stands against racism and inequity that they see within our culture.

But I think that, one, we do ourselves a disservice if we try to sanitize our history. And I think that’s exactly what Douglass was doing during his time period.

Your listeners would be probably interested to know that Frederick Douglass gave two other famous Independence Day speeches later, one during the Civil War and one after the Civil War, actually, in 1875. And it’s something that is very interesting.

From this one that he gave in 1852, he actually says “your holiday,” but in 1875, he refers to it as “our holiday.”

So I think that while we can’t sanitize our history, I think, like Douglass, we need to look at the opportunities that are before us and to make meaningful changes.

I believe that though there are segments within our culture that are not really interested in making true progress, and I think all we need to do is to look back just recently at Sen. Tim Scott trying to push for and advance meaningful legislation in reforming some of the challenges that we have within our prison system as well as with police brutality. And it was met with harsh words from some on the left. And certainly in the Senate, it was met with deaf ears from Democrats.

So I think that we do have to continue to find ways that we can work together to make meaningful progress. But I think we also need to be honest with ourselves that there are elements within our culture that are not really interested in real progress.

Allen: Yeah. And that’s a hard reality. It’s a sad reality. And I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing, as we see so many statues be torn down. That’s that fragment that is s, just kind of bent on destruction and not actually on progress.

On Sunday night we saw that the statue of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, was torn down and it was damaged, and probably damaged so badly that it won’t be able to be repaired.

What was your first thought when you learned about the defacement of the statue?

Nelson: In our current culture, when you see things come across your social media feed, you tend to think, “OK, let me first look and see if this is really real.” Because … I have a hard time in believing that Frederick Douglass on that weekend, when many people are reciting and remembering his famous speech, that, in Rochester, one of his statutes would have been toppled and defaced.

So I immediately called our … chapter president for the Frederick Douglass Foundation in New York, who lives in Rochester. And he says, “Man, I can’t believe it. It is true.” And so we released a statement together just last night.

No. 1, saying we should be clear that the Frederick Douglass Foundation, particularly our group in New York, do not condone that type of behavior and will stand with the Rochester Police Department and community leaders to hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions.

And so it was very sad, very disappointing, but I think helps to really put a magnifying glass on the real reality that there are people within our culture that are more committed to creating chaos then they are solving problems and finding solutions.

So my hope is that those who did this would be identified and would be prosecuted, and that the city of Rochester can come together to say that we’re better than this and really, in the spirit of Frederick Douglass, work together to see some of the challenges that we’re facing in our country resolved.

Allen: Yeah. Have you ever seen this kind of tension in America before?

Nelson: … Certainly not in my adult life. I was born a few months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And I do remember, when I was young, of my parents talking about how tense the time period was, people that were burning and looting, how just tragic that situation was, in losing such an icon and hero. But since that time, I can’t think of a time.

I do remember when Rodney King was beaten, I do remember other times, but nothing really quite like this, to be honest with you.

Allen: Wow. Challenging times, definitely. Now, what do you think Frederick Douglass would say if he was here with us today?

Nelson: I’ve thought a lot about this. And obviously, Douglass as an orator said a lot of things. On the one hand, as I think back to the speech that he gave, the Independence Day speech that he gave in 1875, one of the things he did was he really challenged the African American community.

That there were certain things that we needed to do to demonstrate that we were willing to do our part, as it relates to self-government, as it relates to holding ourselves accountable and doing everything that we should do to advance our people.

But at the same time, he had hard words to say at that time because there were reforms during Reconstruction that were being undermined. And I think that he would challenge us not to compromise our standards, not to find shortcuts.

And in his words, he used “agitate, agitate, agitate.” And I think that each of us should take heed to those words in our struggle, that we should continue to work hard, continue to identify some of the problems that exist, and to do everything that we can to overcome those challenges.

Whether it is issues in education that we see, with the disparities in education in urban communities; or whether it is strengthening our families, encouraging fathers to a commitment of responsibility; or whether it’s criminal justice reform, if we do see that there are inequities within our justice system, challenges with police brutality, then we should address those things head-on as well.

Allen: For our parents, grandparents, teachers who are listening, and they are talking with their kids and young people in their lives about what is going on right now, about this moment in history, what advice would you give to them about how to have honest and open conversations with young people?

Nelson: Yeah, that’s really good. I always am an advocate of going back to the source. And so in this case, I think it would be great for people to read with their kids some of the things that Frederick Douglass said. To listen to the words that he said. I’ve listened to audio books.

He had three biographies, or autobiographies. One was a narrative that he wrote when he had just escaped from slavery. Two, “My Bondage and My Freedom,” where he had lived free just as long as he had been a slave. And then his last autobiography, “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” I encourage people to read through those. There are so many important lessons that are still applicable to today.

So anyway, as a fan and an advocate of Frederick Douglass, I would encourage people to reread and pull out some of the real truths and lessons that were important during his day, and reapply them to our culture today.

Allen: Before we let you go, can you just tell us a little bit about the Frederick Douglass Foundation and what you all do?

Nelson: Absolutely. The Frederick Douglass Foundation and our (c)(3) nonpartisan nonprofit, the Douglass Leadership Institute, we like to say our tagline is “Righteousness, justice, liberty, and virtue.” We host forums around the country where we highlight those in the local community that are doing meaningful work, providing solutions.

We advocate for meaningful criminal justice reform. We advocate for strengthening the black family. We advocate for economic and educational opportunity. And so they can find us at dlinstitute.org or fdfnational.org. There are two organizations, one is a little bit more political and one is a little bit more cultural.

I think that people would find a lot of value in the work that we do. We release articles as well as policy reports here from our office in Washington, D.C., advocating for other things that we believe that Mr. Douglass would be advocating for today.

Allen: Well, Reverend Nelson, thank you so much for the work that you’re doing. We’ll be sure to link those sites in today’s show notes, and we just really appreciate your time.

Nelson: Thank you so very much. God bless you.