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As we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication ceremony of the Lincoln Memorial, it is crucial to reflect on the profound impact Frederick Douglass had on the 16th President of the United States. The evolving respect Douglass demonstrated toward Lincoln provides valuable lessons on the essence of speaking truth to power. However, this relationship between two historical figures goes far beyond a mere exchange of criticism and acceptance. By exploring their writings, we gain a deeper understanding of their complex bond.
Douglass, having escaped the clutches of slavery, aligned himself with the radical Republicans who fervently advocated for an immediate and complete abolition of slavery throughout the nation. Driven by an unwavering passion for justice, Douglass criticized Lincoln for what he perceived as hesitant steps toward emancipation. He boldly stated of Lincoln, "He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country."
Yet, amidst his pointed criticism, Douglass recognized that the newly freed black men and women of America shared a unique relationship with Abraham Lincoln—one that no other community could claim. Despite Lincoln's perceived timidity, Black Americans remained steadfast supporters of his cause because they understood that, even if a reluctant Emancipator, he was their best path to freedom.
Often, attempts are made to revise and sanitize the complexities of their relationship. However, a comprehensive analysis of Douglass' and Lincoln's writings unveils the mutual respect that ultimately developed between the two men. It becomes evident that Douglass displayed bravery by critiquing Lincoln and advocating for total and complete emancipation—a stance that, throughout the ages, will always be correct.
Nonetheless, Douglass came to comprehend and accept that Lincoln possessed a deep understanding of the prevailing sentiments among white Americans at the time. Uncomfortable though it may be to acknowledge, the truth remains that, in 1865, most white Americans were not yet ready for full equality with their Black counterparts. In 2023, celebrating Lincoln's wisdom in gradually rolling out total emancipation is uncomfortable. So we will not do it here despite the fact that Lincoln’s approach played a significant role in preserving the Union and securing liberty.
The trajectory of Douglass and Lincoln's relationship offers an enlightening narrative of progress and the complexities inherent in the pursuit of justice. While Douglass rightfully criticized Lincoln's initial approach, their evolving mutual respect demonstrates the power of dialogue and understanding between individuals with differing perspectives. It serves as a reminder that, in the face of power, speaking truth remains a potent tool for change.
To celebrate life and advance the legacy of Frederick Douglass, visit the Douglass Leadership Institute (DLI). The mission of DLI is to educate, equip and empower faith-based leaders to embrace and apply biblical principles to life and in the marketplace. DLI’s programs are uniquely tailored with a focus on the Black community to excite, inform, and activate participants across the country to lead positive community change
Join the Douglass Leadership Institute for a celebration of Juneteenth.