What Would Frederick Douglass Say to Black Lives Matter Today?
The wisdom of leaders like 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass is critical at this moment in America’s history.
The wisdom of leaders like 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass is critical at this moment in America’s history. The Rev. Dean Nelson, the executive director of Human Coalition Action and chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, joins the show to explain what Douglass’ message to America might be if he were with us today.
(This interview first appeared at The Daily Signal.)
Nelson also explains that to end racism in America, society as a whole must place a value on all human life, whether babies in the womb or grown men such as George Floyd.
We also read your letters to the editor and share a good news story about people across the nation who are helping African American entrepreneurs rebuild destroyed businesses in the wake of riots after Floyd’s death. Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Rev. Dean Nelson, executive director of Human Coalition Action and the chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. Rev. Nelson, thank you so much for being here.
Rev. Dean Nelson: Thank you guys. It’s always a pleasure to be with you, particularly at crucial times in our nation’s history like this.
Allen: Absolutely. I want to begin by just asking you to tell us a little bit about the work that you do at Human Coalition Action.
Nelson: Certainly, yes. Human Coalition was started about a decade ago, with this idea of engaging with women, particularly, around the country to provide alternatives to abortion.
I joined the team about six years ago as their national outreach director, particularly working with partnerships in government and in the church community. We secured some fantastic partnerships with some of the largest African American denominations in the country to do the vital work.
As we continued, we recognized that the work that we do was important in the education space, and certainly as a service provider providing these free resources to women who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy.
In fact, we did it so well that state governments, and even the federal government, showed interest in how we were effectively using technology to engage with women in these vulnerable populations.
So, we recognized that states had a real interest in the work, and we actually secured some contracts and grants in states, again, helping particularly black and Latino women get services that they would need to help them to make that healthy choice for unborn or preborn children.
Fast-forward, we saw, then, we needed to have a (c)(4) to kind of build a grassroots group around the country to advocate for preborn children as well as for women. And so, Human Coalition Action was born almost a year ago to do that very thing.
Allen: Wow. We’re so thankful for the work that you all are doing. It’s really so critical and so powerful, and I think highly, highly relevant to the situation that today we find ourselves in, this really critical moment.
As we’re going to talk about today, only two weeks ago, George Floyd was killed, and America is grieving. It’s become evident that we’re at a critical point in America’s history. Can you share just some of your thoughts about the moment before us?
Nelson: Well, first off, my heart still goes out to his family that’s obviously still grieving with the loss.
You know, it’s hard to watch the video of George Floyd being killed without concluding that his death was both tragic and the result of an evil act. He clearly posed no threat to the officer who killed him, and the subsequent firing of the other … officers that were involved felt like that was a good start.
I’m not a prosecutor, and I’m not privy to, still, all of the details as more come out. But at the same time, looking at that video, to the casual observer, it just seems that some of the things that have been laid may be too lenient, but we’ll see.
But it was tragic, and my hope is that many individuals, many organizations cross-culturally can continue to work to see healing and resolution. It is a tricky challenge for many people, but I’m glad to be part of the conversation.
Allen: Yeah. You are the chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. If Frederick Douglass was here with us today, what do you think he would say?
Nelson: [That’s] a great question, and I’ve thought a lot about this, listening and re-reading some of Frederick Douglass’ writings, who himself had a degree of evolution from the time that he started, escaping from slavery as a young abolitionist, to the time that he served multiple presidents.
I think, one, he would echo the word “agitate, agitate, agitate.” Frederick Douglass was one who felt like we needed to push the boundaries, whether it was with the federal government in his relationship with President [Abraham] Lincoln, whether it was with other white leaders like William Lloyd Garrison, who he worked with and then broke away from. I think that the “agitate, agitate, agitate” is an appropriate word that I feel like Frederick Douglass would echo.
That being said, he was always one who felt that we needed, … particularly as black people, to demonstrate a level of dignity and poise.
Frederick Douglass, as you may remember, was the most photographed person in the 19th century, and every photograph that you will see is a poised and distinguished African American man.
Part of that reason was because of the caricatures that were around at the time, and he wanted to represent black men and black people very differently.
And so, I think that Frederick Douglass would have a real problem with what we have seen in our culture with the looting, with the destruction of property. I think that that is beneath us as a people, and I think that he would be very disappointed with that type of activity that we’ve seen, really, from both sides, white and black.
Allen: How did you come to be involved with the Frederick Douglass Foundation?
Nelson: Basically, I guess this has been about over 10 years ago now too, when President [Barack] Obama was first elected, you know, I had worked here in Washington, D.C., and knew a little bit about his record, and while we could cheer the fact that America could elect a African American, I knew a lot more about his policies.
So, we gathered about maybe 15 or 20 black independents, Republicans, and conservatives to say, “Hey, what [is] our response, now that we [have] someone who was elected to office who [looks] like us, but his policies [are] radically different than what we [feel] like would be productive and helpful for America and for our culture?
So, that’s kind of how we got started.
A friend of mine, Timothy Johnson, who has passed away, had a dream at my house that evening after we had the first meeting, and he asked me the next morning, did I know anything about Frederick Douglass, and I said, “Hey, here’s a big poster.” I said, “I’ve launched an initiative called the Douglass Leadership Institute. It’s just in its infancy, but it’s designed to help black leaders know more about the work of Frederick Douglass, who was, in his own words, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.”
So, that’s kind of how it got started, in part through a dream of a friend, and in part through the coming together of black conservatives and moderates after President Obama was elected.
Allen: Wow, that’s so powerful. What an amazing story. And you’ve continued that tradition of meeting with influential African American leaders. You were at the White House just yesterday, meeting with a number of those very leaders and the vice president, Mike Pence. Can you tell us a little bit about that meeting and what the vice president had to say?
Nelson: Yeah, it was a fantastic meeting, a couple of hours over lunch, and it was leaders who, I think, have the right principles and the right ideas about how America can move forward, particularly during this very difficult time regarding race.
The vice president echoed something that I believe, and that is, he feels at the root of this issue is the lack of the value and dignity for human life, and that racism is an assault against human dignity, and how can we address issues of race, issues of inequity within our American culture, but at the same time, do it in a productive way?
I felt like … the voices that were at that table, particularly that of Kay James, who is the president of The Heritage Foundation, and my good friend Elroy Sailor, felt like they were really good initiatives.
Some of them had more of a spiritual perspective, some of them had a public policy perspective, so I felt like it was an excellent start, and I trust the vice president to take those recommendations to heart.
Allen: That’s so encouraging to hear. And, if I could, I want to ask you a little bit more about that because you worked in the pro-life movement for so long, and you’ve been vocal right now about the fact that value for human life at all stages, it’s so critical, and it affects, really, all of society in a huge, huge way, maybe more than we realize.
So, how does that value for life at all stages affect the way that people, a community, or even a country think and act?
Nelson: You know, I’m so pleased to work at an organization that is named Human Coalition because the idea is to try to bring to the forefront of our culture how precious life is, whether it is the life of a preborn child that’s in the womb of his mother or whether it’s the life of a precious human being who is struggling for breath because of a trusted law enforcement officer putting his knee on his neck.
I feel like that when we look at—certainly as a Christian—the idea of Imago Dei, that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, that means that whether we are rich or poor, black or white, that every person deserves that protection under the law. That is really what our great Constitution is all about.
So, I feel that we as a people have to affirm the dignity of human life at every stage. I think we should call into question if we are not protecting our most vulnerable citizens, those who are preborn, in the womb of their mother, then maybe that should say something to our country that we’re dealing and struggling with seeing others not value life at other stages.
My hope is that through continued dialogue, through agitation, as Frederick Douglass would say, pushing the boundaries, that American culture will reexamine how important life is.
Liberty is extremely important, but I think the Founders had it right to include first life, then liberty, and my hope is that we’ll be a better society for having these meaningful discussions.
Allen: … In your opinion, what is at stake if, as a culture and a society, we don’t begin to truly value human life, whether, like you say, it’s an unborn child or it’s someone in their 40s? What is at stake before us if we can’t make that switch to actually value all human life?
Nelson: Yeah, I shudder to think about what would happen, not just in America, but around the world.
America has been looked to as the leader in the free world for a reason, and I think part of those reasons are because the world has seen us, in many times, go to extraordinary circumstances to protect human life.
And if we fail on this issue, it not only means that the poor and that the vulnerable, those that are in urban communities, that those folks are forgotten, but it also means that the people around the world don’t have this city set on a hill to look at as an example anymore.
I think that we have to get this right. We have to come across ethnic boundaries to say that this is what it is fundamentally to be American, this is what it is fundamentally to be human, and we have to get this right. I don’t think that we have an option.
Allen: Yeah. So, where does that value begin for all human life? How can that be taught?
Nelson: It has to be done, I think, in every sector of our society.
So, before my children ever marched at a Black Lives Matter event, they went with me when they were younger to a pro-life event. I think that families have to have these discussions and to model it before their children.
I believe that we need to have leaders that are in the arts and entertainment to continually voice their thoughts about how important the dignity of human life is. We need to have good public policy that doesn’t discriminate based on size, doesn’t discriminate based on position in terms of whether that child is unseen, in the womb, or outside.
So, I think that in every public sector, whether it is in arts and entertainment, whether it’s in the family, whether it’s in government, whether it’s in education, we have to reaffirm these principles of life and liberty.
I believe that if we are able to continue to insert those and have these conversations, and to educate and to demonstrate in every one of these sectors, I believe that we’ll have a hope of restoring a greater commitment to the sanctity of life at all stages.
Allen: Yeah. And like you say, … it takes every sector of society. Right now, I think a lot of people’s eyes are on the church. They’re looking to the church for, how is the body of Christ going to respond? And we cannot be silent. What is your message to the church right now?
Nelson: You know, in the meeting that we had with the vice president yesterday, I was prompted to remind him of a proverb that says, “A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city.”
America’s in a very vulnerable position right now, and I believe that, particularly, black Americans have had this struggle. There’s been a great offense, and we see it every day in the media, played out in some way, shape, or form.
And I believe that … Scripture says that it is harder to win; it doesn’t mean that it is impossible, but it means that it’s not going to be done simply by a pulpit exchange, by having a black pastor speak at a white pastor’s church. It isn’t going to happen just because somebody invited someone over to have a meal. Those are great starts, but we have to look at this from the long view.
I believe, though, that the church has a great history in America. Not without problems, without a doubt, but when we look at the founding of our country, there were a large number of Christians who stood up and said that slavery was wrong, and they didn’t want to have slavery in certain parts of our country.
During the struggle for abolition, it was the church that stood up and said that a man who is born in this country, regardless of his race or his color, should be afforded the same protections under the law. That’s what Frederick Douglass did, and he was one who was a slave.
But I’ll take it one step further, and we’ve seen this with the peaceful protests from Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the words and the lifestyle of Frederick Douglass, where even though he was subjected to slavery and discrimination, because of his Christian faith, he found it in his heart to forgive his slave owner, and because he recognized that the slave owner was the one who was really bound when he accepted the premise that one man could own another.
I believe that the church does have a great opportunity to represent itself in this generation to show that Christ is the one who is pleading through us to be reconciled to him, and once that reconciliation to him occurs, we can have a society, I believe, that can demonstrate reconciliation toward one another.
Allen: Wow, wow. Oh, and you tweeted a great Scripture last week out of Ephesians that says, “Be angry and sin not.” Many people are angry right now, and they have a right to be angry.
Nelson: That’s right.
Allen: But how do we hold that tension of being angry, having that righteous anger, but not sinning?
Nelson: Yeah. Well, we probably all don’t do it very perfectly, that’s for sure. But to that same point, St. James also said that the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.
My encouragement to people, regardless of their faith background, would be this: to give each other a little bit of deference, to give each other a little bit of space.
I feel like that we do have the right to be angry. I was angry, my children coming to me were angry. But I believe that we can move forward if we lean on one another, we reflect on the writings of the ancient Scriptures to give us a little bit of perspective.
So, it’s not easy, we’ll stumble across the way, but I think this whole idea of extending grace and forgiveness and showing a little bit of deference to one another would help us to go a long way.
Allen: Yeah, yeah. Wow. One of your roles at the Human Coalition is really, essentially, to kind of be a bridge-builder between communities. And like we’ve talked about, it’s clear that we need to be building some bridges in America. Speaking from your own experience, what are some of the most effective ways to build those bridges between communities?
Nelson: Sure. One is being willing to go outside of your comfort zone. To make meaningful change, it’s not easy.
So, I have encouraged people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds to go maybe outside of their comfort zone to at least listen, and to have conversations, allow people to sometimes say what they want to say to get it out, [they] may not say it perfectly, again, but going outside of your comfort zone to engage with people who have different ideas.
It’s not even just about people who have a different color, but it may be people who have different ideas. I feel like, as a conservative leader, I am best when I hear the best liberal ideas to compete and to wrestle with those.
I think beyond just going outside of your comfort zone, I think going back to this idea of kind of allowing people to grow.
I have to share this story. If I go back to 1989, I believe, I was a student at the University of Virginia on spring break. I went to Howard University, where I had gone previously to transfer into University of Virginia.
I was there, and something erupted on campus. I joined this huge protest. We took over the Administration Building, and it was all for the purpose of opposing Lee Atwater for being on the board of Howard University, a historically black college and university. Lee Atwater at the time was the head of the Republican National Committee.
So, I was protesting against a party that I would later on become a part of personally, and so I feel like that story demonstrates that people can change, people can evolve in their thoughts and in their ideas.
But someone came to me and helped me to understand a little bit better the principles of the conservative movement. Someone came to me and helped me understand better ideas of free-market principles, principles of limited government. And those things were consistent with how I was raised, but it took someone, a number of people, over a period of time to show patience with me as I began to work out my own political ideology.
Allen: Yeah. Wow. Thank you for sharing that story. It was really powerful. Now, I know that you are a strong man of faith, and I know that you’re praying for our nation right now. What is that prayer that you’re praying over America?
Nelson: Yeah. One, and I hate to beat a dead horse here, but one really is that we as a nation would humble ourselves, that we would listen to the cries of groups of people that are hurting, and that we would show grace, humility, and deference to people …
You know, the Bible talks about mourning with those who mourn. There’s a time and a season for everything. We do need truth. As one person said, truth is not something that politely taps you on the shoulder; truth sometimes is like a punch in the gut. I don’t think that that’s what we need right now.
We need, as we’re praying with people around the country, that we would have an attitude of humility and deference toward one another, and that ultimately, through that, we would be healed.
I joined prayers just two days ago with law enforcement officers and with ministers of the gospel. I’ve been in prayer meetings with people that are from a variety of faith traditions because everybody, by and large, wants peace. And so, I think that the idea of praying for the peace of our nation should be on the forefront of every leader’s minds and lips.
Allen: Rev. Nelson, thank you so much. We so appreciate your leadership in this hour, and just your wisdom and your insight. Very, very thankful for you and the work you’re doing.
Nelson: Thank you guys so very much for every opportunity, and I encourage you to continue to do the great work that you’re doing on reporting on some of these things that the broader culture doesn’t get to hear.
Allen: Thank you so much.
This interview by Virginia Allen first appeared in The Daily Signal on June 8, 2020.
Image: Mural on the wall of row houses in Philadelphia. The artist is Parris Stancell, sponsored by the Freedom School Mural Arts Program. 17 April 2009. Flickr/Tony Fischer. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).