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Would Frederick Douglass Take a Knee?

That question was posed recently at a Patriot Week talk I gave commemorating the bicentennial of Douglass’s birth. Created in 2009, Patriot Week is the brainchild of Judge Michael Warren and his daughter Leah of Oakland County, Michigan. Now celebrated in ten states, it aims to further our appreciation and discussion of America’s first principles and culminates on September 17 in Constitution Day, a federally-mandated observance in educational institutions that receive federal assistance of any kind. It seemed a perfect opportunity to discuss Douglass’s perspective on American patriotism.

Douglass viewed himself as a patriot devoted to the first principles of the nation – life, liberty, and equality. He regularly praised the values embedded in the Declaration of Independence and defended the Constitution against other abolitionists who thought it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” This devotion extended to the symbols of American patriotism. In an 1871 speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after slavery had ended, he admitted to being stirred by “the star-spangled banner [that] floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land.” He confessed at other times to being moved by the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – then a popular patriotic tune and not yet the national anthem – and frequently performed it on his violin for his grandchildren.

His perspective on patriotism, however, meant that he should use his vast skills as an agitator to pose a challenge to the nation when the symbols of American patriotism had become an empty gesture, or when the nation failed to live up to its ideals.

Douglass, the most influential African American of the nineteenth century, made a career out of agitating the American conscience. After escaping from slavery in 1838 at age twenty, he spoke and published on behalf of a variety of reform causes for the better part of six decades. But he devoted the bulk of his time, immense talent, and boundless energy to ending slavery and gaining equal rights for his race. He understood that the struggle for emancipation and equality demanded forceful, persistent, and unyielding agitation. And he recognized that African Americans must play a conspicuous role in that struggle. Less than a month before his death in 1895, when a young black man solicited his advice to an African American just starting out in the world, Douglass replied without hesitation: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

For Douglass, patriot and critic were not mutually exclusive terms. He understood that the ongoing effort to “form a more perfect union” mandated that citizens be willing to challenge the nation when it fell short of its ideals, even if it meant using the symbols of American patriotism as part of that protest.

Although Douglass frequently blended the roles of patriot and critic, this was never more evident than on July 5, 1852, when he made an Independence Day address in Rochester, New York, at the invitation of the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Although untitled, the speech is popularly known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” after a line in the text. Douglass began by praising the principles of the Founding Fathers, and assuring his audience that he was “not wanting in respect” for their genius, but he used the occasion to raise a powerful challenge to the nation’s adherence to the institution of slavery. 

“What to the slave is your 4th of July?” he queried. “I answer a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery . . . .” Douglass employed one of the holiest moments in the calendar of American patriotism to protest the extent to which the nation fell short of its first principles. For him, protest aimed at bettering the nation was the best sort of patriotism, even when it involved putting a negative face on an honored symbol of the nation.

Were he alive today, I have no doubt that Frederick Douglass would take a knee during the flying of the flag and the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” joining Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, and other professional athletes who use this method to protest police brutality against black men and other racial inequalities. Of course, as a skilled agitator and a devoted patriot, there is a chance that he might think this form of protest a bit too respectful.