Frederick Douglass and Southern Politics

Frederick Douglass published his autobiography 170 years ago this year. When it appeared in 1845 it instantly became a blockbuster and a central text of the abolitionist cause. It also made Douglass perhaps the best known African American in the country.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass describes the grinding, awful realities of slavery from the point of view of the slave. As he tells his own story, in his own voice, he also takes great pains to expose and discredit every possible rationale used to defend the "peculiar institution." It is both a deeply personal statement and a sweeping social analysis.

In Chapter 8, Douglass describes being put up for sale at a slave auction. "We were all ranked together at the valuation," he writes, "Men and women, young and old, married and single, were ranked with the horses, sheep, and swine." Here is what it means to be a slave and sold like any other commodity. But Douglass finishes this paragraph is an unexpected direction: "At that moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder."

When I have taught the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass over the years, I have paused to consider that sentence. Why, I ask students, in a book describing the horrors of slavery would Douglass suggest that it brutalizes slave-owners too? Was he merely trying to broaden the appeal of the book to his largely white readers? Or was he expressing a more profound truth about the corrupting nature of power?

The Narrative is filled with examples of this corruption, of violence done to slaves in a dozen different ways. And yet Douglass is asking us to remember that as physically and psychologically scarring as that violence is to slaves, it also ruins the souls of those who perpetrate it -- turning them, literally, into brutes. Absolute power, after all, corrupts absolutely.

Slavery ended in the United States 20 years after Douglass published the Narrative and 150 years ago this year. But arguably the system of white supremacy in the American south expanded after emancipation with the imposition of Jim Crow segregation. Jim Crow was both a legal system and an unwritten code of conduct which perpetuated white dominance over black Americans well into the 20th century. Fewer than 50 percent of Southerners owned slaves, after all, but in the years after Emancipation all white Southerners could enjoy the economic, social and other advantages that came with Jim Crow.

That power truncated and diminished countless black lives without question, and that legacy continues to play out today. But it also corrupted white Southerners too and not that long ago. Southern baby-boomers grew up in a segregated society where any white person could exercise arbitrary authority -- legal or otherwise -- over any black person and not worry about consequences.

Racism is surely not an exclusively Southern problem, but the legacy of "brutalization," in the sense Frederick Douglass described, is. What happens to a person whose daily life is built on a foundation of racial hatred and the exercise of a panoply of petty sadisms? Think of that iconic photograph of the integration of Little Rock Central High. The quiet dignity of that young black woman and the white teen shrieking in hatred just behind her. Or of that gruesome image of a Southern lynching where a young girl smiles up at the body hanging from a tree.

True, not all Southerners supported slavery or the racial segregation that followed it, but like the French during World War II very few of them actually joined the resistance. They certainly kept electing politicians, at all levels, who vowed to perpetuate white supremacy -- now and forever, in George Wallace's memorable words.

Perhaps Frederick Douglass helps us understand why Southern politics has been and remains so angry and cruel. Southerners controlled Congress during the New Deal and circumscribed those programs lest they benefit black Americans. Their successors fought bitterly against the expansion of civil rights and voting rights in the 1960s. And their successors have mounted a massive resistance to Obamacare, never mind the human suffering that obstruction perpetuates. Perhaps a culture in which the capricious exercise of arbitrary power by one group over another is still a living memory makes people fundamentally callous.

Nearly 170 years after Frederick Douglass published his autobiography, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who shares with Douglass roots in Baltimore, has published his own which promises to join Douglass' as an expression of what it is like to be black in these United States. As we read this indispensable book, it is worth remembering what Douglass taught us: Racial injustice, rooted in the very bones of the nation, has poisoned us all.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.