Hillsdale College should uphold the Legacy of Frederick Douglass

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A statue of Frederick Douglass stands on Hillsdale College’s campus, a testament to the school’s continuing pride in its abolitionist roots. As alumni, and fellow heirs to that legacy, we would call the school administrators’ attention to Douglass’s 1857 remarks on the Dred Scott decision: “All I ask of the American people is that they live up to the Constitution, adopt its principles, imbibe its spirit, and enforce its provisions." 

If Hillsdale College is to live up to Douglass’s injunction, we believe, the school has a responsibility to speak today. As Kaylee McGhee wrote recently in The Collegian, Hillsdale fights inequality "by teaching individual students to pursue truth, to love it, and to use this truth to influence the hearts and minds of others." She is right, which is why we, the undersigned alumni, feel compelled to address the college.

It ought not be controversial to say systemic racism has shadowed this country since the first slaves were brought here. Thanks to the heroic efforts of Douglass and thousands of other abolitionists and civil-rights leaders, our country is now closer to realizing the founders’ ideals of equality than it was in 1857. But history, as we all know, still permeates our lives. The struggle for black lives did not end with the adoption of the 13th Amendment.

Racism is still present in schools, in workplaces, and in American social life. Police brutality against citizens is rampant; these citizens are disproportionately black. This is not a new phenomenon. Scores of black men and women have been murdered with impunity throughout our country's history — only now we are confronted with the reality by digital documentation. In the present atmosphere, white people can no longer deny this or simply look away.  Now, as peaceful protestors march against this injustice, the federal government has deployed unidentified secret police to quell rebellion and has literally taken arms against its own people exercising their rights. Former Hillsdale students on both sides of the political aisle can see this is a fundamental issue of right and wrong, of freedom and tyranny, and not a partisan issue.

Our nation is in turmoil as it reckons with these fatal inequalities. As self-described “thought leaders,” Hillsdale’s leaders are often vocal about current events, interpreting them in light of the moral beliefs that have long defined the school. This moment should not be an exception. Inaction here is notable. The school’s leadership is not fulfilling Douglass' imperative with today's silence.  After all, at least according to legend, Douglass was asked by a young man for his advice. His reply: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

This is not a direct request for a denunciation of racism writ large, because Hillsdale has long voiced its opposition to discrimination. This is not a request for support of a particular organization or an empty gesture. This is not a request; it is a reminder and a reckoning. 

Douglass expected that when the American people all lived up to the Constitution, there would finally be justice and peace — but right now there is no justice and therefore no peace. Douglass said, idealistically, "When this is done, the wounds of my bleeding people will be healed, the chain will no longer rust on their ankles, their backs will no longer be torn by the bloody lash, and liberty, the glorious birthright of our common humanity, will become the inheritance of all the inhabitants of this highly favored country."  

We have not yet succeeded. Those wounds remain; those chains still hold; and the backs of black Americans  are still crushed by police. We urge Hillsdale’s administrators to listen and act. The leaders of this movement are Douglass's "bleeding people,” and Hillsdale College, in keeping with its legacy,  should be standing with them — because we, together, are "the people," all citizens equally.