The Most Sacred Right : Throughline Frederick Douglass dreamed of a country where all people could vote and he did everything in his power to make that dream a reality. In the face of slavery, the Civil War and the violence of Jim Crow, he fought his entire life for what he believed was a sacred, natural right that should be available to all people - voting.

The Most Sacred Right

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Just a quick note before we get started - this episode contains violence and language that may be upsetting to some listeners.


JOSE RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.



These are the words of Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest minds in American history. Born into slavery in the early 1800s, Douglass would lived to see the Civil War, emancipation, Black men getting the right to vote with the 15th Amendment and the beginning of the terrors and humiliations of Jim Crow. And through all of that, he kept coming back to one thing, a sacred right he believed was at the heart of American democracy - voting.

ARABLOUEI: In this final episode of our series (mis)Representative Democracy, we're tackling the question that both haunted and drove Douglass his entire life. Is our democracy set up to include everyone? And if not, can it ever be?


ABDELFATAH: We all know American democracy didn't start out that way. Initially, only landowning white men could vote. So the founding principle of representation for all was really just representation for a few.

ARABLOUEI: And, sure, we made progress. People of all races and genders can now vote. But running parallel to that progress is another reality. At every step of the way, as more people have gotten the vote, more barriers have been put in their way to keep them from voting.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Will you repeat the mistakes of your fathers who sinned ignorantly? Will the country be peaceful, united and happy or troubled, divided and miserable?

ABDELFATAH: Frederick Douglass dreamed of a country that lived up to the ideals of its Founding Fathers, where all people could vote - universal suffrage. And he did everything in his power to make that dream a reality. In the face of suffering, he hoped. In the face of setbacks, he hoped. In the face of violence, he hoped. And in the face of suppression, Frederick Douglass hoped.

CAROL ANDERSON: In a democracy, when citizens can't vote, we get a bastardized nation. We get policies that reflect the will of the few and not of the majority. We get institutions created that are designed to empower and enrich the few.

ARABLOUEI: This is Carol Anderson, author of "One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy." She's been with us throughout this series.

ABDELFATAH: Why do you think he thought the vote was the core piece in reaching that aspiration of the Founding Fathers as he saw it?

ANDERSON: David Blight could probably answer that one better than I can 'cause - I mean, damn. It's a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography.

DAVID BLIGHT: I'm David Blight. I teach American history at Yale University. And my most recent book is a biography - "Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom."

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) We may be asked why we want it. I will tell you why we want it. We want it because it is our right, first of all.

BLIGHT: He probably would argue, you know, what's at risk here is that if you keep doing this, people will cease to believe in elections. They will cease to believe in institutions. And if they do that, then democracy dies.

ABDELFATAH: With David and Carol as our guides, we're going to retrace Frederick Douglass' battle for the right to vote, a battle that he fiercely, defiantly and unwaveringly waged his entire life in pursuit of what he believed was a sacred, natural right that should be available to all people.


ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: Where we go back in time...

ARABLOUEI: To understand the present.


BRETT: This is Brett (ph) from Dallas, Texas, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE by NPR. You guys make it (laughter) - I can't even say it right. You guys make working these long, hard days outside a lot easier. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 1 - The Cheering Beams of Truth.


RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) I was born in Tuckahoe near Hillsborough and about 12 miles from Easton in Talbot County, Md. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far, the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs. And it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.

BLIGHT: Frederick Douglass was born on the eastern shore of Maryland, a true backwater of the early slave society of the South. He's born with the elaborate name of Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Precisely why his mother, who was Harriet Bailey, gave him all those names, we do not know for sure.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant, before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom to part children from their mothers at a very early age. For what this separation is done, I do not know unless it be to hinder the development of the child's affection towards its mother and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

BLIGHT: By the time he's born, the Cotton Kingdom has been born. And in the next three to four decades, it will grow into the single-largest American crop and commodity by far. And slaves will become the single-largest financial asset in the entire American economy.


RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) I have often been awakened at the dawn of the day by the most heart-rendering shrieks of an aunt of mine whom he used to tie up to a joist and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers from his gory victim seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped.


KENNY DAVILLE DINO: (Singing) I'll be so glad when the sun go down, when the sun go down. I'll be so glad when the sun go down, when the sun go down.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) I was seldom whipped by my old master and suffered little from anything else than hunger and cold. I was kept almost naked - no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse towel linen shirt reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor with my head in and feet out. My feet been so cracked with the frost that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.


BLIGHT: He is shipped to Baltimore, up the Chesapeake, 27 years old to be the playmate of his owner's brother's son.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) We sailed out of Miles River for Baltimore on a Saturday morning. I remember only the day of the week for, at that time, I had no knowledge of the days of the month nor the months of the year. On setting sail, I walked aft and gave Colonel Loyd's plantation what I hoped would be the last look.

BLIGHT: The best luck or fate in Douglass' early life was going to Baltimore because it opened to him a new vision on the world. Baltimore was a very large seaport then and a big shipbuilding center. Sophia Hall takes him in because he's supposed to be the playmate of their son. She teaches him his letters, the alphabet, and he takes to reading in an insatiable way. Hewell, her husband, stopped by one day and said, you can't teach that kid anymore. In fact, Douglass describes it using the N-word.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) A n***** should know nothing but to obey his master...

BLIGHT: You must stop teaching him.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) ...To do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n***** in the world.


BLIGHT: And Douglass says later, that was the first anti-slavery speech I ever heard because if this is such a precious skill and they don't want me to have it, then I must really want to get - I need this. This is maybe the way out of this.


KENDALL SIMON WOOD: (Reading) To scatter the clouds of ignorance and air from the atmosphere of reason, to remove the film of prejudice from the mental eye...

BLIGHT: He collects everything he can read, and he gets his own copy of an extraordinary book called "The Colombian Orator," this reader, this manual of oratory.

WOOD: (Reading) ...And thus to irradiate the benighted mind with the cheering beams of truth is at once the business and the glory of eloquence.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book.

BLIGHT: And clearly, that book had a great influence on him imagining his way out of slavery.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound and seen in everything. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it. I heard nothing without hearing it and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star. It smiled from every calm, breathed in every wind and moved in every storm.


BLIGHT: He eventually, as a teenager, gets jobs down on the wharves. In 1838, there were about 3,000 slaves in Baltimore, but there were about 17,000 free Blacks. He lived amongst a large free Black community, and he moves about with relative ease in that whole community - their churches, their debating societies, their social engagements.


RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) I now come to that part of my life during which I planned and finally succeeded in making my escape from slavery.

BLIGHT: When he was about 19 and then 20, he hatched a plot to escape from Baltimore. He dressed as a sailor, which was not uncommon to Baltimore. He wore a sailor's outfit, he had a sailor's broad-brimmed hat, and he had that big white collar of a sailor boy. And he borrowed a sailor's identification papers from an old retired Black sailor. And the plan, as he hatched it with the help of a few people, was to take the train.

He bought a ticket. He took the train out of Baltimore. He escaped up through first Delaware and then into Pennsylvania and then from Philadelphia, a train all the way to Hoboken, which is where the train lines ended. And then in a little boat, he crossed - a little ferry, he crossed the Hudson River. And in 36, 38 hours by three different trains and three different boats, he reached New York City. He only had a few dollars in his pocket and that copy of "The Colombian Orator" in another pocket.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The flight was a bold and perilous one, but here I am in the great city of New York, safe and sound without loss of blood or bone.

BLIGHT: It is a combination of sheer chutzpah and fear on one hand and really good planning on another.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The dreams of my childhood and purpose of my manhood were now fulfilled. A sense of loneliness and insecurity oppressed me sadly. A man homeless, shelterless, breadless, friendless and moneyless is not in a condition to assume a very proud or joyous tone. I was not only free from slavery, but I was free from home as well. At this time, Anna, my intended wife, came on. For I wrote to her immediately after my arrival at New York - notwithstanding my homeless, houseless and helpless condition - informing her of my successful flight and wishing her to come on forthwith.

BLIGHT: Anna - Anna Murray - she was a free Black woman born free out on the Eastern Shore, only about three miles from where Fred was born. They meet in Baltimore in his late teen years. She worked as a domestic, a servant. The word gets quickly to Anna. She had her bags packed, and she arrived in New York. They were married in the home of David Ruggles, who was the African American kind of local leader of the New York variation of the Underground Railroad. They were married in his parlor. She wore a purple dress.


RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Upon receiving this certificate and a $5 bill from Mr. Ruggles, I shouldered one part of our baggage, and Anna took up the other. And we set out forthwith to take passage on board of the steamboat John W. Richmond for Newport, on our way to New Bedford.


BLIGHT: New Bedford was well known as a kind of a haven for fugitive slaves. And he is a fugitive slave. Let's remember that he can be captured any time. And there, the second morning they were in New Bedford, they were staying in the home of a free Black family named Johnson. Mr. Johnson says to Frederick, you need a new name. You got to change your name now. And Johnson happened to be reading, according to Douglass, Sir Walter Scott epic poem, "Lady Of The Lake." And the hero or the leader of one of the Scottish clans was named Douglas. And Johnson suggested this name to Douglass. And he said, oh, I like that name. Strong name, and I'll add an S. And he did. And for the rest of time, he became Frederick Douglass.


BLIGHT: One of the first things he does as a fugitive slave, as a 21-year-old, is to register to vote. And there's a record. He is listed Frederick Douglass. He paid the $1.50 poll tax. Massachusetts had a poll tax. In New England, Black men voted pretty much all through the antebellum period. And I love the irony of it. I mean, think of the irony of it. He's a refugee. He's a fugitive slave. He's an illegal immigrant. And he registered to vote. And he will vote the rest of his life, whether he's in Massachusetts, New York or Washington, D.C., which tells us something about what he thought about that particular right and power.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) I took right hold of the cause. I could do but little. But what I could, I did with a joyful heart and never felt happier than when in an anti-slavery meeting. I seldom had much to say at the meetings because what I wanted to say was said so much better by others. But while attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket on the 11 of August, 1841, I felt strongly moved to speak. It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments when I felt a degree of freedom and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren.

ARABLOUEI: Frederick Douglass begins his crusade for universal suffrage - voting for all - when we come back.


MARIAM: Hey. My name is Mariam (ph) from San Jose, Calif. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE, from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2 - The Sacred Right.


RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Fellow citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable, and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes. And for the good they did and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

BLIGHT: From the very moment he gets on a platform as a speaker - as early as 1841 and then endlessly across the North as the itinerate abolitionist orator in the 1840s into the 1850s - Douglass was a firm, fierce believer in what the 19th century loved to call the natural rights tradition. And what we generally mean by that is that tradition of inalienable rights, you know, rights that are either from God or from nature.

Douglass once referred to the first principles of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, you know, the four first principles - liberty, equality, popular sovereignty - meaning governments exist by the consent of the governed - and the last was the right of revolution. Exactly what he meant by equality, you know, has always been open to debate, but Douglass loved those principles, loved those creeds. He loved the Declaration of Independence in that sense. He didn't like the way it was practiced, but he loved the creeds.


RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us? I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us.

BLIGHT: He said natural rights are like the air you breathe. They belong to no one group, no one person, no one country. They belong to everybody. And the right to vote, to Douglass, in something called a republic, if it could ever live up to those creeds, was the most sacred right of all. He saw it not just as a kind of human right to participate in one's political system, but he saw it as a power by which people could protect themselves.

That's a little hard sometimes in our world, you know, 21st century, especially with young people, to convince them, you know, your right to vote is a way to protect yourself. Douglass really believed that, and he said it a thousand times over - that the right to vote, for African Americans in particular, especially once they were liberated by the Civil War, was their greatest self-protection.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Abraham Lincoln) All persons held as slaves shall be then, thenceforward and forever, free.

BLIGHT: The Civil War brings about - overnight in historical time - the liberation of 4 million people. Well, that took enormous blood and sacrifice, of course. It was the central outcome of the war - that and the preservation of this nation, the Union. Who are they? Are they going to be citizens? If so, with which rights?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Abraham Lincoln) The colored man, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance and energy and daring to the same end.

BLIGHT: Right away, the radical Republicans, the leadership anyway - and let's remember, it was the original Republicans, the Republicans of Abraham Lincoln - came out for Black suffrage.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Abraham Lincoln) Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it than by running backward over them?

BLIGHT: That Black male suffrage had to be created.


BLIGHT: Now, that had multiple motives. One of the motives - and it should not be diminished - is that they believed this was a right. The second motive was, if you want to spread the Republican Party into the South, you have a whole new constituency to do it with here with Black voters (laughter).

So the right to vote becomes the heartbeat of radical Republican reconstruction plans as soon as the war is over. Douglass is himself a radical Republican at this point. He's just not an elected official. He has nothing to do with designing these plans. He is, as always, the spokesman. He is the orator. He is the writer. He's the outsider trying to beat his way inside, you know, to that Republican Party. But Douglass starts preaching for the right to vote immediately. In fact, he's doing it during the war.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) We may be asked why we want it. I will tell you why we want it. We want it because it is our right, first of all.

BLIGHT: This speech called "What The Black Man Wants" is a speech he took on the road. And it's a fascinating oration because it is mostly about the right to vote. It's also about wanting and demanding dignity, wanting and demanding safety, et cetera.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) I hold that women, as well as men, have the right to vote, and my heart and voice go with that movement to extend suffrage to women. But that question rests upon another basis than which our right rests.

BLIGHT: He especially used the idea of the service and sacrifice of Black soldiers. If we are, you know, human enough to serve in uniform, if we are human enough to go die in war for the country, then we are human enough to have the right to vote. You know, if we are capable of this, then we are capable of that.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) By depriving us of suffrage, you affirm our incapacity to form an intelligent judgment respecting public men and public measures. You declare before the world that we are unfit to exercise the elective franchise and, by this means, lead us to undervalue ourselves.

BLIGHT: There is no argument, he says, against this right to vote. You can say that Black people who were enslaved are not as well-educated. But they know how to till a field. They know how power gets used 'cause it's been used on them for generations. They know how political will is based on how you can bend it out in society. They know something about economic power because they were slaves living under this system. So he says over and over and over, don't tell us we're not educated as a means of not letting us vote. Help us get educated, and we'll show you how to vote.


BLIGHT: He so often used this argument that the right to vote was the ultimate sacred form of protection in a republic.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) If I were in a monarchical government or an autocratic or aristocratic government, where the few bore rule and the many were subject, there would be no special stigma resting upon me because I did not exercise the elective franchise. But here, where universal suffrage is the rule, where that is the fundamental idea of the government, to rule us out is to make us an exception, to brand us with the stigma of inferiority and to invite to our heads the missiles of those about us. Therefore, I want the franchise for the Black man.


BLIGHT: Douglass had this sense that voting wasn't just as individuals. Douglass' view of this was, you don't just vote as an individual. You know, there's all this one man, one person, one vote - you know, this idea - what has the government done for me, me, me, me? No. Douglass argued - and I think we should all argue - that we vote in groups. And if you don't vote, you let your group down. We don't just go vote as alienated single individuals. We vote in blocs. And he made that argument right away that Black folk, especially in the heavily Black populated regions of the South, could become a powerful voting bloc.

ABDELFATAH: In the aftermath of the Civil War, a time that would come to be known as the Reconstruction era, the country was reinventing itself. It was a moment of great hope and promise for Black Americans in particular. The country was embracing progressive reforms. Black politicians were being elected to Southern state governments and even to Congress for the first time. Laws against racial discrimination were being implemented. The future looked bright.

ARABLOUEI: And about three decades after Frederick Douglass had escaped slavery and cast his first vote, the 15th Amendment was ratified, granting all Black men the right to vote.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The revolution wrought in our condition by the 15th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is almost startling, even to me. I view it with something like amazement. It is truly vast and wonderful. And when we think through what labors, tears and precious blood it has come, we may well contemplate it with a solemn joy. Henceforth, we live in a new world, breathe a new atmosphere, have a new Earth beneath and a new sky above.


BLIGHT: Probably the most openly hopeful brief period of Douglass' life was from about 1867 to 1870 or so. During that brief moment, that window, he writes a speech that he took on the road for a while called the "Composite Nation."

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) We stand between the populist shores of two great oceans. Our land is capable of supporting one-fifth of all the globe. All moral, social and geographical causes conspired to bring to us the peoples of all other overpopulated countries. Europe and Africa are already here, and the Indian was here before either.

BLIGHT: This is an amazing speech where Douglass says, the United States now has a chance to do what no other people have ever done, to create a republic with people from all corners of the world of all colors. All religions and ethnicities can come together and all live under the same constitution - now a new constitution - and the rule of law. He says, no one's ever done this. No one's ever accomplished this in a republic. We have that chance. We have a chance to create, he says, the composite nation.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.

BLIGHT: In the middle of this speech, he makes a vigorous case for Chinese immigration, which is just becoming a big issue in the 1860s and especially by the '70s. And the speech is amazing. He says, look, Americans. And by that, he means white Americans. He says, get ready.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The Chinese will come.

BLIGHT: The Chinese are coming.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Do you ask if I favor such immigration? I answer, I would.

BLIGHT: They're the biggest civilization in the world.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Would you have them naturalized and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would.

BLIGHT: They've created a culture for 3,000 years. Let's absorb that culture.


BLIGHT: It's so hopeful. You read it, and, God, it sounds like, you know - it sounds like a multiculturalism manifesto from some school district in 1998, or it sounds like the mission and diversity statement of a university or a company today. But it's rooted in - this is so important to understand about him and other abolitionists. It's rooted in the belief now that not only had they won the war but they had recreated a different America; they had reinvented the republic, that it's the second republic now.


BLIGHT: However, like all revolutions, this one will have a counterrevolution. In the 1868 presidential, the general election, the first time Black men voted in large numbers, Black men in the South - former slaves, the freedmen themselves - lined up in droves at voting polls to vote. And they voted for the conqueror of the Confederacy, Ulysses Grant, and he became president. Now, the Democrats at that time ran a viciously, I mean, very openly racist, white supremacist campaign against Grant. That campaign, it must be said, was probably the single most racist and white supremacist campaign ever conducted in American history. They just appealed to white man's society, white man's government and protecting the country from, you know, the N-word vote.


BLIGHT: And in the wake of the '68 election, even during that election, this counterrevolution by the white south was wrecked upon Black Americans. It was wrecked upon the freed people.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They shot the man, and they hanged him. And then they used his body for target practice so as to teach Black folk a lesson.

BLIGHT: The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and many other imitators, many other kinds of terrorist groups, vigilante groups across the South who will wage a informal, largely vigilante terror war against Republican politics, Black politics and the Black right to vote using terror, using violence, using intimidation and using virulent, you know, white supremacy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I remember my mother taking us to the back of the house and pulling down the blinds and closing the curtains because the Klan was marching.


BLIGHT: All the good scholarship about the Klan and all of its imitators shows that the principal aim of Klan violence and others was to stop Black politics, to wipe out Black suffrage. And by and large, it succeeded by the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of that era we tend to call the Jim Crow era.


ABDELFATAH: The Jim Crow era would last almost 100 years and would be defined by the violent, systematic oppression of Black Americans across the South.


ARABLOUEI: This was Frederick Douglass' worst nightmare. The country was reverting back to its old ways and that essential right, the right to vote, was under attack.


AUDREY: Hi, this is Audrey (ph) calling from Lancaster, Pa. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. Thank you so much for this podcast. Every episode is so unique and fascinating, and I look forward to it every week. Keep up the great work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - A Nation of Sopranos.


ANDERSON: I tell the story of Maceo Snipes. He goes to the voting spot, and there is a sign over the door that says something to the effect - the first Negro that votes, that'll be the last thing he ever does.


ANDERSON: So he walks in. He casts his ballot. He walks out - nothing. He goes home. For several days - nothing.


ANDERSON: And then there's a knock...


ANDERSON: ...On the door. And he goes out on his front porch, and he sees a white man and then he sees three additional white men and then he hears (imitating gun cocking) and it's a firing squad. And they laid Maceo out - shot him. He was the only Black person to vote in Taylor County in Georgia. Our nation is rich with these stories, so this battle over the right to vote is bloodstained. It's terror filled.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Though we have had war, reconstruction and abolition as a nation, we still linger in the shadow and blight of an extinct institution. Though the colored man is no longer subject to be bought and sold, he is still surrounded by an adverse sentiment which fetters all his movements. In his downward course, he meets with no resistance, but his course upward is resented and resisted at every step of his progress.

BLIGHT: At times, it causes a real despair for him and for others in the former abolitionist movement.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Do you ask me how, after all that has been done, this state of things has been made possible? I will tell you our reconstruction measures were radically defective.

BLIGHT: So, yeah, as he grows older, this is defeat of reconstruction becomes in some ways the most difficult thing in his life to assess, to incorporate into his vision of America. But the thing that sustained him - right or wrong, naive or not - was this faith in natural rights.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) By law, by the Constitution of the United States, slavery has no existence in our country. The legal form has been abolished. By the law and the Constitution, the Negro is a man and a citizen and has all the rights and liberties guaranteed to any other variety of the human family residing in the United States.

BLIGHT: And sometimes he got accused of being out of touch and naive by the next generation of Black leadership. Some said, you know, what we need is more economic change. What we need is more capital. What we need is economic rights, not just always the right to vote. Some accused him of being a little naive about his faith, you know, in political liberalism, in law and voting.


BLIGHT: And, eventually, Douglass did travel to the Deep South. He went all the way to Florida on one trip. He went all across Georgia, Alabama on another trip. These are in the 1880s, early 1890s. He says, let's remember - the bitterness and the hatreds of the slaveholders we have just defeated may only now be worse because they're defeated.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) They left the former slave completely in the power of the old master, the loyal citizen in the hands of the disloyal rebel against the government.

BLIGHT: So it's not like he didn't expect violence, but what he did hope for was more enforcement in the South of the freedmen's rights and the freedmen’s safety.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The old master class was not deprived of the power of life and death, which was the soul of the relation of master and slave.

BLIGHT: He would always say, you're always talking about what to do with the Negro, what to do with the freedmen. He said, well, don't do anything with us except protect us, give us fair play and give us the right to vote and we'll take care of ourselves. Well, you can only take care of yourself in a society that does not allow terrorist violence to overtake any social order, and that did eventually happen. Now, he begins to cope with it over time by constantly attacking it, by constantly demanding that the federal government act, by constantly demanding that his own political party deal with it and act and right on down to, you know, the last great speech of his life...

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Friends and fellow citizens...

BLIGHT: ...Called "Lessons Of The Hour" - sometimes went under the title "Why The Negro Is Lynched."

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) I am here to speak for and to defend, so far as I can do within the bounds of truth, a long-suffering people.

BLIGHT: And he took it on the road in '93 and all through 1894, which is the last full year of his life. He's by then a really aging man who's ill. He clearly had heart disease. He complained constantly of his hands shaking. He couldn't write as well. He was exhausted all the time. But that speech is a barnburner. It's one of the amazing speeches of his life.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) The contagion is spreading, extending and overleaping geographical lines and state boundaries. And if permitted to go on, it threatens to destroy all respect for law and order not only in the South, but in all parts of our country - North as well as South. When the poison of anarchy is once in the air, like the pestilence that walketh in the darkness, the winds of heaven will take it up and favor its diffusion.

BLIGHT: But above all, he argues, what they're really doing now is they've decided that every dead Black man is a dead Black voter. They are trying to use now the last weapon they have, which is terror, to obliterate what's left of Black political activity, Black political action. Basically, he is saying, if we didn't have this right to vote, they probably wouldn't be killing us. It's our politics and our quest for power, both economic and political, that they really want to kill.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Time and strength are not equal to the task before me. But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then was as the trump of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time-honored tyranny to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages.


ABDELFATAH: Frederick Douglass continued to fight for universal suffrage, for a truly representative and fair democracy, till the very end. He died of a heart attack in 1895 after attending a meeting at the National Council of Women, an organization working to get women the right to vote.

ARABLOUEI: Twenty-five years after he was gone, women would finally get that right. But as was the case throughout Douglass's life, progress was never far from disappointment. In the first half of the 20th century, as more people got the right to vote, more obstacles to voting also emerged.

BLIGHT: Some of the most pernicious and cunning forms of voter suppression - I mean, blatant discriminations - poll taxes, you know, literacy tests or reading a passage of something in order to get the right to vote, the so-called fail-safe grandfather clause. You know, if your grandfather voted in 1860, you get to vote. Well, that pretty - that guarantees no Black people can vote. And there are all kinds of variations, and there's all sorts of weird machinations that Southern states went to to prevent Blacks from voting.


ANDERSON: One of the things I say - and I am no Frederick Douglass - is that when we have an electorate where it's only sopranos singing, that gets harsh on the ears after a quick minute - just - right? When we have an electorate that is made up of sopranos and altos and baritones and basses and tenors, we get the richness of the sound. And America for so long has been a nation of sopranos, and the policies have reflected that. And I think that that's what Douglass saw. That's what Douglass lived through.

ABDELFATAH: By the early 1940s, as the U.S. was gearing up to enter World War II, the terror and voter suppression tactics of the Jim Crow era had taken a massive toll. Frederick Douglass's worst fears had been realized. Black suffrage was almost nonexistent in the South.

ANDERSON: Only 3% of African American adults were registered to vote in the South. And the states are yelling, states' rights, states' rights, states' rights. And because the language is race-neutral enough, the federal government, even if it wanted to, didn't quite have the mechanism to intervene.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Warnings of arrest, threats of jail terms and violence all fail to put out what burns in the hearts and minds of the youngsters.

MALCOLM X: 1964 looks like it might be the year of the ballot or the bullet.

LYNDON JOHNSON: The command of the Constitution is plain. It is wrong, deadly wrong to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.


ABDELFATAH: On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed the discriminatory voting practices of the Jim Crow era - things like literacy tests and the grandfather clause. This was a big deal. The federal government was finally taking a firm stance against voter suppression.


JOHNSON: At times, history and fate meet at a single time, in a single place, to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We'll hear argument first this morning in case 1296, Shelby County v. Holder. Mr. Rein...

ARABLOUEI: Fast-forward to 2013. The Supreme Court is deliberating whether key parts of the Voting Rights Act are constitutional.


JOHN ROBERTS: Now, the question is, is it rational to do that? And...

ARABLOUEI: And in a 5-4 ruling, they decide that crucial parts of the act are unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts explained the court's decision.


ROBERTS: I think what we're talking about here is that Congress looks and says, well, we did solve that problem. As everyone agrees, it's been very effective. Section 5 has...

ANDERSON: Roberts ruled that racism wasn't like it was back in the '60s. I mean, I - we have overcome.


ROBERTS: You have a different constituency from the constituency you had in 1964. But coming to the point, then, if you think there is...

ANDERSON: That we have all of these Black elected officials, and so the Voting Rights Act feels really archaic, a relic of a bygone era instead of a vibrant law that is doing the work of democracy.

ARABLOUEI: Problem was, of course, racial discrimination hadn't evaporated in those four decades. It is still a grim reality of voting in America. And Shelby v. Holder only made things worse.

BLIGHT: Voter ID laws have been passed in so many states, you can't count them now. And in many cases, especially this affects the Black community in the south, where people don't have driver's license. They don't own a state-issued ID. I mean, all these methods the Republicans are using in many, many states - reducing hours of voting, reducing days of early voting, reducing numbers of polls, fighting now over mail-in ballots.

ANDERSON: I mean, we like to treat this kind of disfranchisement as some kind of relic of the past. No. In the 2018 election, I voted early so that I could drive folk to and from the polls. Because here in Georgia, they had shut down over 200 polling places and the majority of those in minority and poor communities. And one of the women that I drove, she was like 90. And we go to the polls. And they're like, how are you doing, Miss? You know, and they name her - call her name. And she's like, I'm fine. They're like, we got to see your ID. And she's trying to get, with these 90-year-old fingers, this ID out of her wallet, when they know her.

She's able to get it out, and she votes, and we get back in the car. And she's like, mmm hmm, I remember when I had to read something when I first tried to vote here in Georgia, and they were asking me all these questions - literacy test. And so this woman who had to come through Georgia's literacy test is now having to deal with Georgia's voter ID laws with a powerful civil rights movement and a Voting Rights Act in between those two moments.


ANDERSON: This is why history matters. So if we're just picking up and seeing something now and we're treating it like it's new, then we don't understand the root of how we got here, how this thing has evolved and not evolved over time, these kinds of consistent battles between our ideals and the depth of wealth and political power tied to that wealth, and what that clash has meant for the way that the United States has unfolded, the way this democracy has unfolded. We live on the plane of aspiration, of what this nation could be, but we're also so aware of how fragile, how tenuous, progress is. And that's why we fight.

RUFINO: (As Frederick Douglass) Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved. And whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity or adversity, whether it shall have foes without or foes within, whether there shall be peace or war based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of complaint or grievance, your republic will stand and flourish forever.


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...







RUFINO: I'm Jose Rufino. I played Frederick Douglass.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl. Also, if you want to hear more from Carol Anderson, our fellow NPR podcast Code Switch is doing an episode with her that drops this Saturday. Check it out.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law for helping us get connected to people on the ground who have experienced voter suppression directly or are working hard to fight it. If you have any questions or concerns about your voting experience, you can call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE. That's 866-687-8683. You can also call your local election or political party officials.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Kendall Simon Wood for his voiceover work. And a special thanks to Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ABDELFATAH: Additional music was written by Hania Rani. And additional field production was done by the one and only Rumi Bayonet Arablouei.

ARABLOUEI: This may be the final episode of our (mis)Representative Democracy series, but it's pretty safe to say we'll be thinking about the state of our democracy well after the election. That's why we're bringing you another evening of THROUGHLINE Trivia. And this time, all three rounds are dedicated to this series. So come test yourself. Mark your calendars for Thursday, November 12 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. And go to to RSVP.

ABDELFATAH: And as always, if you have an idea or like something on the show, please write us at or find us on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening. And please don't forget to vote.


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