#BLM – What would Frederick Douglass, 19th-century writer and abolitionist, say?

Letrário Translation Services promotes daily communication between people from all over the world through translation. That is also why it believes in unconditional respect for others. Naturally, we have been deeply disturbed by the recent events in the United States, where an act of police brutality captured on video brought to light the existing systemic racism; in the US and worldwide.

Due to the belief in the value of knowledge, in this article, Letrário will provide some background to the current situation in the US, summarising it. The article will also try and imagine what abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s stance would be with regard to the current Black Lives Matter movement.


Southern trees bear a strange fruit

In 1939, jazz artist Billie Holiday feared for her career, but still sang about the southern trees that bore a strange fruit: the black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.

Holiday was singing about the lynchings that became more common after the American Civil War, during the Reconstruction era, and which only began to decline in the 1930s, lasting however until at least 1981, with the death of Michael Donald, at the hands of the KKK.

In 1964, Nina Simone, jazz artist and civil rights activist, sang, visibly fed up, that everybody knew about Mississippi.

Simone was singing about the murder of Medgar Evars by a KKK member in 1963, and about the act of white supremacist terrorism that happened in the summer of the same year: the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, where four children died.

In 2018, Donald Glover, by the stage name Childish Gambino, released “This is America”, along with a music video full of subliminal messages regarding Jim Crow Laws, which enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States; media distraction; the Charleston church shooting; police brutality; mass incarceration; and much more.

“This a celly, that’s a tool”

For example, the line “This a celly, that’s a tool” in “This is America” may carry three different meanings. Firstly, it could refer to cell phones and to how they’re a tool used to record events, sometimes without intervention, and the artist thus criticizes the “bystander effect“.

Secondly, “celly” could also be a cell, a reference to the growing US prison population, which is the largest in the world and consists mostly of African Americans and Hispanics.

Lastly, it may refer to a recurring event: police killing unarmed black people on the grounds that they thought their mobile phones were guns.


What happened to George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks?

On May 25 2020, a 46-year-old black man by the name of George Floyd was killed in Minnesota, Minneapolis. Derek Chauvin was the white cop who pressed Floyd’s neck with his knee for almost nine minutes, helped by three other police officers. The reason for this was an alleged fake $20 bill.

The situation, which was recorded and went viral on the Internet, has sparked a wave of protests in several states across the country and around the world, in which at least two people have already died. The protests continue and have already led to the arrest and prosecution of those involved. However, one of the police officers, Thomas Lane, is free and awaiting trial, as he has been released on a $750,000 bail, which he paid.

Last Friday, yet another young black man, Rayshard Brooks, was killed by an Atlanta Police Officer, Garrett Rolfe, who shot him twice in the back.

The officer was called to the scene because Brooks had fallen asleep in his car, which was stationary. Brooks was administered a breathalyser test. His blood alcohol level was 0.108, which is over the legal limit of 0.080. The officer then stated Brooks was in no condition to drive. In the video, which also went viral, it can be seen that during the arrest process that followed, the officer shot Brooks, killing him after he tried to use the officer’s taser.

Many believe the use of deadly force was not justified, with the coroner listing the manner of death as homicide.


What is this problem deeply-rooted in?

This problem has slavery as its background, which was abolished over 400 years ago, with some however arguing that it has only “evolved”, affecting the income, agency, justice, employment, housing, education and health of black people. The Ku Klux Klan is another contributing factor, given the impact it has had on the way authorities act.

“What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say: get your knee off our necks.”

Reverend Al Sharpton at George Floyd’s memorial service.


What would Frederick Douglass’s stance be?

“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.”

Speech at Civil Rights Mass Meeting, 1883.


African-American abolitionist, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) is seen as the father of the civil rights movement in the United States and as the most influential African American of the 19th century.

Douglass escaped slavery on 3 September 1838, dressed as a free black sailor, and was successful thanks to his knowledge of the sea. He had tried to do it two years before, but was betrayed by a fellow slave.

He started to learn to read when he was still a slave, with Sophia Auld, his master’s wife, but was predominantly self-taught, which he detailed in “Learning to Read and Write” (1845).

Douglass’s biographer, Joseph W. Holley, wrote that “he understood that the struggle for liberation and equality required vigorous, persistent, and inflexible agitation.” Regarding the ongoing commotion in the US, it is therefore likely Douglass would say:

“If there is no struggle there is no progress.

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one. And it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

West India Emancipation speech, 1857.


Dean Nelson, chairman of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, adds, however, that Douglass felt it was especially necessary for black people to demonstrate a level of dignity and poise, and therefore condemns the looting and destruction of property that took place during the protests.


What can we do?

Sign the Justice for George Floyd petition. There is a lot to do, but this is a good start.

Do you need to reach out to another culture, but have no idea who to turn to? Contact us; we would be happy to help.