February is Black History Month. On Monday, I logged into Google and noted that they had changed their logo artwork into a Google "Doodle" of Frederick Douglass.
During Black History Month, pro-life organizations often point to the work of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, drawing parallels between the Civil Rights movement and the movement to end abortion. We will speak to the disproportionately high abortion rates in the African-American community, often with considerable public blow-back - such as that faced Purdue Students for Life this week and our Roe Remembrance special guest Madison Gesiotto over the past few months. Black History month gives an extra boost to prominent black voices in the pro-life movement, both local voices like Rev John Coats and national voices like the Reverend Walter Hoye, both good friends of Greater Columbus Right to Life. Speaking of Rev Hoye, the speaker at our 2013 Annual Banquet, he was recent on the Catholic Doctors' Show (1/27/16), talking about Rev Martin Luther King Jr, Rev Hoye's own letter to clergy from jail, and the prolife movement as a civil rights effort. These are all good conversations to have - not just in February, but year-round.
However, the Google Doodle of Frederick Douglass made me pause for a moment to consider that it is strange he is not more frequently quoted by pro-life leaders, and that is a shame. Curiously, I googled "Frederick Douglass pro-life" and only 67,000 hits came up. By comparison, searching "Martin Luther King pro-life" resulted in about 400,000 hits. It seems as though Frederick Douglass is not well known, or perhaps not as well cited by pro-life leaders, as he should be
As an unjustly brief introduction for those who may not recall his place in American history, Douglass was born a slave, separated from his mother shortly after birth, and likely conceived in rape. He was self-taught to read and write, and believing education to be integrally linked with freedom he began secretly teaching other slaves how to read and write. In his teens, he was sent to serve a man with an especial reputation for cruelty and breaking slaves. He nearly "broke" Douglass with horrific beatings, until the day that Douglass boldly stood up to him. At the age of 20, and after several failed attempts, he escaped via train to New York, eventually becoming the most eloquent abolition speaker in the United States, and arguably one of the most impressive orators in Western Civilization.
The Google Doodle of Frederick Douglass not only made me wonder why more pro-life voices do not echo his sentiments, but it inspired me to pause to read one of his famous speeches, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?". If you have never read it, you should; if you haven't read it for a while, you should read it again. It is not a short speech, but it is very worth it.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
As I continued to read the speech (and it is not short), I realized that the pro-life movement does echo the sentiments of Frederick Douglass - we just do not attribute our words to him with the frequency that we should. That is a shame. His challenge to the nation, half slave and half free, divided by the Mason-Dixon line to was to consider the arbitrary nature of an unjust and immoral law which attempted to deny his humanity. I wonder if our modern day equivalent is the post-viability standard set by Casey - a line drawn in the legal sand that arbitrarily and unjustly determines the point where the life of an unborn child has the potential of legal standing.
I've honestly never read anything of Frederick Douglass suggesting he had an opinion on abortion. Perhaps if I re-read his collected works there might be a statement one way or the other. But the reality is that we do not need to appropriate the words of Frederick Douglass in order to make them - or our work - valid. Ending abortion isn't right because ending slavery was right. Ending abortion and ending slavery are both right because there is something that is fundamentally true about what it means to possess an inherent human dignity because we are made in the image and likeness of our Creator.
So read the speech, and after you've read it think about it, and after you've done both - if you'd like to get together to talk about it, let me know. It could be fun.
Usually, when I wish people a Happy Birthday, I jokingly add "even though you were fully human for about 9 months before then." In this case, Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass, even though you were fully human for 20 years and 9 months before it was legally recognized.