Frederick Douglass

Ezra Greenspan encourages consulting Frederick Douglass for advice about what to make of modern politics.

Greenspan, a professor and literary and cultural historian at Southern Methodist University, said he believes Douglass still has the most compelling vision for a multiracial America. In celebration of Douglass’s 200th Birthday, Greenspan will explain his devotion to the long-dead social reformer at the Bailey Library in Andrews Hall on Sept. 28 from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

Greenspan is the author of numerous American history books, including his new project, “The Lives and Times of Frederick Douglass and His Family: A Composite Biography.”

Kenneth Price, UNL professor of American literature, said he requested Greenspan because he agrees with Greenspan on the relevance of Douglass’s message.

“I wanted to invite Professor Greenspan, a distinguished critic and biographer, to talk on Frederick Douglass both because of the 200th anniversary and because of the current state of our country,” he said. “This talk could not be more timely.”

Greenspan said Douglass was the most influential and accomplished African American statesman of the 19th century.

“A rough historical analogy: he was the Martin Luther King of his time, or Martin Luther King was the Frederick Douglass of his time,” he said.

In his lecture, Greenspan will discuss the current historical significance of two of Douglass’s orations about immigration and Washington, D.C.

Douglass fought against the pervasive idea that Chinese people should not be allowed in the country, Greenspan said.

“[Douglass] memorably argued that the splendor of the U.S. lay in its multiethnic population and open skies mentality,” he said. “In a memorable phrase, the kind he had as much genius for as did Abraham Lincoln, he said, ‘Right wrongs no man.’”

Douglass also believed that Washington, D.C., could become a great uniting force for the United States, Greenspan said.

“He had great hopes that Washington, a backwater for much of the pre-Civil War era, would grow into a great capital city,” he said. “What held it back, he argued, more than anything else, was that it was a slave city until 1862.”

Douglass’s messages are important during the Trump administration and specifically in the selection of justices for the Supreme Court, Greenspan said. 

Douglass would be appalled by the state of modern political discourse, especially relating to race, Greenspan said.

“He believed that only a strong central government can solve the most urgent civil problems of a divided society,” he said. “But I can't even guess what practical solutions he might have offered to bridge our current divide.”

Douglass made the news last year when President Donald Trump made a confusing statement where it was indiscernible whether or not the president knew Douglass was dead or not.

Greenspan titled this lecture, “Frederick Douglass at 200: ‘Still Doing a Great Job,’” in light of Trump’s statement.

“President Trump showed his ignorance notoriously last year in declaring FD was ‘still doing a great job,’” he said. “No small triumph for a man dead over 120 years.”

Greenspan will be discussing a variety of issues and the current administration in depth at his lecture.

“What would Frederick Douglass think about the current administration?” he said. “That's the perfect question for today.”