Frederick Douglass would still be scowling

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There's a reason why Frederick Douglass was never photographed smiling.

During his lifetime, the great abolitionist saw his name associated with a lot of ventures -- some he supported, others he didn't. Because he was the most influential and famous black man in America, there were pros and cons to having his name associated with one's cause.

For instance, Douglass didn't mind being associated with the Radical Republicans, who wanted to not only end the institution of slavery immediately but confiscate all Confederate land and distribute it to the emancipated slaves. Think "40 Acres and a Mule" on steroids.

Meanwhile, that business with John Brown and Harpers Ferry -- not so much, which is why Douglass left the country for a few months while white folks absorbed the shock of a violent slave uprising led by a white man. Because he was a known associate of Brown's, Douglass didn't want to end up dancing on the business end of a rope for actions he didn't necessarily endorse.

After the Civil War, Douglass, who was also a zealous crusader for women's suffrage, was drafted against his consent by the Equal Rights Party as its vice presidential nominee. Because women couldn't vote in 19th century America, even Karl Rove would've been able to figure out long before election night that Victoria Woodhull, the ticket's presidential nominee, wasn't going to prevail.

As much as Douglass sympathized with the suffragists, he didn't want to be associated with the drubbing the Equal Rights Party had coming to it after the polls closed. It was already hard enough for a black man out there in the middle of Reconstruction, which explains why every image we have of Douglass features the brother scowling. He was tired of his name being taken in vain and his approval for every scheme being taken for granted.

At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland last week, Douglass' name was invoked by K. Carl Smith, the ultraconservative founder of an Internet site called "Frederick Douglass Republicans." Mr. Smith convened a panel called "Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist When You Know You're Not One?" because lots of conservatives are desperate for affirmation from any black man willing to be seen in the room with them these days.

Mr. Smith's advice to conservatives about how to turn around the perception of the GOP as a party hostile to the interests of minorities was to recite the following with as straight a face as possible: "I'm a Frederick Douglass Republican."

Say what?

With sage advice like that, it didn't take long for the session to fall further down the rabbit hole once two men, one of them wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt, confessed that they were feeling put-upon by nonwhite voters. "It seems to be that you're reaching out to voters at the expense of young white Southern males," one of the men said to the hapless Mr. Smith, adding his perception that his "people and culture" were "being systematically disenfranchised."

Although Mr. Smith conveniently overlooked the fact that Douglass beat the hell out of one of his slave masters before escaping to freedom, he responded to the white nationalists with a half-baked platitude about the abolitionist "forgiving" his oppressors.

One of the young men wondered aloud why Douglass had to "forgive" the men who presumed to own him in the first place: "For giving him shelter? And food?" the attendee said, echoing the Confederate talking point that the horrors of slavery have been exaggerated and that the slaves -- America's original "takers" -- had actually gotten the better of the deal.

As a middle-aged black man, K. Carl Smith has probably seen his share of unreconstructed bigotry, but even he was taken aback by such boldly stated opinions at a session ostensibly designed to help conservatives reach out to minority voters. The session rapidly degenerated into a shout-fest between the lone black woman in attendance and resentful white attendees, further highlighting the GOP's problem with nonwhite Hispanic, Asian and black voters. No one used the mantra "I'm a Frederick Douglass Republican" to shut the aghast woman down.

Two days after the panel session, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus pledged $10 million to a minority outreach effort that would send party workers into the communities Republicans overlooked in 2012 to promote the GOP's tarnished brand. Let's hope for the sake of our two-party system that the coming wave of Republicans in the 'hood is more enlightened than the folks who showed up for that session at CPAC.

Somewhere, Frederick Douglass is definitely not smiling.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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