Washington, D.C. – Members of the Congressional Black Caucus gathered on Capitol Hill with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and many others to honor the 200th birthday of famed abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass Wednesday evening. In their tributes to Douglass, the bipartisan group of leaders reflected on the lessons we can learn from the legacy of a man who was born into slavery and became a master statesman and writer.
Rep. McCarthy said, “two hundred years after the birth of Frederick Douglass, I believe it is fitting to ask why do we remember?”
McCarthy emphasized that despite Douglass’s anger over his enslavement he made a choice to love America and its founding principles.
He quoted Douglass’s words: “I cast all my care upon God…I finally found my burden lightened and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind slaveholders not excepted though I abhorred slavery more than ever.”
“We remember Douglass because of that choice,” McCarthy said, “because despite enduring great cruelty he chose not to destroy but to redeem and he chose to redeem not through abstractions or ideas but through action and a genuine love for his fellow man.”
Rep. Mia Love (R-UT) talked about the moment from Douglass’s life that touched her the most and said she believed it was reflective of the love that was the driving force behind his life.
“He said that his mother use to call him her little valentine and that’s why he chose February 14th as the day of his birthday,” she said.
“The reason why I think Frederick Douglass is such a driving force today is what drives us is not anger, it’s not the fight, but it’s the love that we have,” she emphasized. “The love that people have shown us in our lives. His mother, his wife that stood by him through thick and thin and when we work today we work to represent the people in our lives. Remember what’s the driving force, it’s not hate, it’s the love.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, emphasized that Frederick Douglass “overcame obstacles that no man nor woman nor child should ever have to overcome. He was born into slavery.”
Richmond quoted Douglass from an 1846 letter: “I am one of those who think the best friend of a nation is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins—and he her worst enemy, who, under the specious and popular garb of patriotism, seeks to excuse, palliate, and defend them.”
“We would be wise to remember his words now,” Richmond said.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) also reflected on Douglass’s words, saying that he had “lots of advice for us that is very relevant at this moment today.”
“As a result of his fight for freedom and the fight of so many in the civil rights movement, we have become a more perfect union,” Van Hollen said, “but we also know we have a long journey still ahead to reach that goal and it was Frederick Douglass who said ‘we have to do with the past only as we can make it useful for the present and the future.’”
The final speaker of the evening was Ken Morris, the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass.
In his role as president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, Morris said he often speaks to young people about Douglass and other historical figures. He said “it’s hard for them to imagine that they were living people that overcame struggles and obstacles.”
Morris announced that in honor of Frederick Douglass’s bicentennial his organization has published special editions of Douglass’s first autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave" which they plan to put into the hands of one million students by the end of the bicentennial year.
“We want to inspire and empower the next generation of leaders with the words of Frederick Douglass,” he said.
“History lives in all of us,” he reminded those gathered. “It doesn’t just live in me because I am descended from two people that we’ve heard of but history lives in each and every one of you…but the future depends on how we carry that forward.”
The event concluded with the swearing in of members of the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission who were tasked with creating programs to celebrate and honor the 200th anniversary of his birth.