Frederick Douglass Was Only Partially Right

First, calm down. I am still a great fan of this juggernaut of Bootstrapping Black Power, but sometimes the times call for things to be said that run counter to the popular notions. Furthermore, to deny the shortcomings of our heroes and sheroes is to deny them of their humanity while lifting them to a pedestal too high for us mere mortals to imagine attaining – and that just ain’t right.

In the case of Frederick Douglass, the shortcoming I’m referring to is not one of character but of not putting forth the full reality of struggles against structures of power. Being a Black Man, working in the field of Social Justice, I am often faced with folks who wanna impress or otherwise seem some kind of clever with the mis-quote “Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never did and it never will.” Although the actual quote is “demand” and not struggle, the basic sentiment is the same. And for the purposes of this discourse whichever you choose won’t change anything.

The statement, profound as it may be, fails to clue the listener/reader into an equally important part of dealing with power, once power concedes, if you don’t work to maintain the concession power will take it back. Disagree? Once support was withdrawn from the antebellum South, Southern power took all them concessions back, every last one of them, and threw in a few decades of intense oppression with a hefty dose of lynching thrown in for good measure.

Following the enactment and enforcement of the civil rights act of 1964 (and subsequent years) folks got excited and took jobs, bought homes, enrolled in private schools and enjoyed the “good life.” Two decades later, when the complacency of the “good life” had set in real nice like, we saw heads banging up against glass ceilings (not just Blacks but Women who benefitted from the Civil Rights Act). That was followed very shortly by removal of middle management positions, the start of the attack on Labor, the birthing of predatory lending, privatization of public education, revocation of voting rights and a new form of intense oppression with a hefty dose of imprisonment thrown in for good measure a’la the war on drugs.

Frederick Douglass was quite correct in pointing out that on its own, power will never concede a single anything, and whether it be a demand or struggle something has to create the tension Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Where Brother Douglass’ statement fell short was to not inform them that it is not enough to just get power to concede, you must maintain a vigilant guard over that concession or risk having it taken away. In the case of social justice, this is a reminder that the work of justice is neither short nor swift, but ongoing, as power (in this good ol’ U.S. of A.) will always seek a way re-establish its positions of comfort and luxury at the expense of others. In the meantime, let us heed the words of Samora Machel of the Mozambique Liberation Front “A Luta Continua!”

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