How far would you go to support human rights? Lessons from Frederick Douglass's escape (#51)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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How do we find the courage? Would we have had the courage to provide Frederick Douglass with false papers, risking our lives to save his?

A year ago [blog #1, Catch your breath] I wrote about how startlingly surprised I was that White people came out to support racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.  Since then, support has declined among segments of society.1

What happened? And how can those of us who are committed stay engaged?

Continued support in some quarters, declining support in others

Recent polls show that support for Black Lives Matter among people of color and Democrats has stayed at or well above the levels held at the beginning of 2020.2  On the other hand, support from White Americans and Republicans rose briefly in June 2020 in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s brutal murder, but have now declined to lower levels than they were at the start of 2020. 

In other words, among White Americans and Republicans (a frequently overlapping group), we are witnessing a backlash.  We have seen it before. In the aftermath of Emancipation of American Black slaves and the Reconstruction Era which was intended to help the newly freed slaves build new lives, a backlash occurred. The Jim Crow era severely restricted the freedoms of the ex-slaves and their descendants for decades after.

Again in the 1960s, in the aftermath of desegregation, the War on Poverty jump started many Blacks into the middle class.  With retrenchment signaled by the election of Ronald Reagan came the beginning of the Second Jim Crow era in the form of mass incarceration, withdrawal of support for economic justice, and other systemic injustices we are witnessing today.

Across the centuries and the populations, what distinguishes those who stay engaged in social justice causes from those who don’t?

The difference appears to be related to willingness to take risks, especially for self-advocacy, and how connected we feel to those we are supporting, especially for advocating in support of others. Let’s review a well-known historical example.

Frederick Douglass, one of the premiere abolitionists of his time, was born a slave, the son of an enslaved woman and an unidentified White man. He worked in the shipyards, earning a good wage for his master, and lived a life not quite as hard as those who toiled in the fields. In 1838 he began hatching a plan to escape to freedom. His willingness to take this risk provides an opportunity to reflect on our own.

In his autobiography, Douglass wrote:

It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require the free colored people to have what were called free papers. These instruments they were required to renew very often, and by charging a fee for this writing, considerable sums from time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name, age, color, height, and form of the freeman were described, together with any scars or other marks upon his person which could assist in his identification.

This device in some measure defeated itself, since more than one man could be found to answer the same general description. Hence many slaves could escape by personating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done as follows: A slave, nearly or sufficiently answering the description set forth in the papers, would borrow or hire them till by means of them he could escape to a free State, and then, by mail or otherwise, would return them to the owner.

The operation was a hazardous one for the lender as well as for the borrower. A failure on the part of the fugitive to send back the papers would imperil his benefactor, and the discovery of the papers in possession of the wrong man would imperil both the fugitive and his friend.3

Douglass convinced a freedman to lend him his papers and implemented his escape.  He faced several hurdles along the way, any of which could have led to his return to his master with grave consequences for himself and the free Black man whose papers he was using.

Heather Cox Richardson, in her world renowned “Letters From an American,”[4] reflects on Douglass’s decision:

To me, Douglass's decision to step aboard that train is everything. How many of us would have taken that risk, especially knowing that even in the best case, success would mean trying to build a new life, far away from everyone we had ever known?

Douglass's step was such a little one, such an easy one... except that it meant the difference between life and death, the difference between a forgotten, enslaved shipyard worker and the great Frederick Douglass, who went on to become a powerful voice for American liberty.”

When Richardson is asked by her students for wisdom at graduation, she tells them: “When the day comes that you have to choose between what is just good enough and what is right... find the courage to step on the train.”

Yet how do you find the courage to step on the train? Would you step on the train? Who would you step on the train for?

What does it take to step on the train?

Researchers have assessed the factors that lead people to risk the safety of the known for a hoped-for gain in an uncertain future.  Two factors are worth noting. First, anger increases the likelihood that people will make a risky choice, while fear decreases it.5 If we’re angry enough, we fight back. We take risks. If we are merely fearful, we withdraw into self-protection.

A second factor is self-efficacy, the belief in one’s own capacity to achieve a successful outcome. If we believe we can pull it off, we might at least try. If we don’t see a way, no point in trying. The research says that the greater the self-efficacy, the more risks the person will take.6 

We can imagine that Douglass felt both.  We know from his writings that he harbored a deep anger about his oppressed condition, and he had survived and witnessed numerous tortures as a slave. His anger and his history of survival might have been sufficient to override his natural fear.

What does it take to lend someone your papers?

What is striking about the story of Frederick Douglass’s escape is not just that he took grave risks on his own behalf. Equally striking were the risks taken by those who lent him their papers. They also made a dangerous choice. What made it worth it?

In a fascinating study, researcher Kristen Monroe analyzed in-depth interviews of bystanders, Nazis, and rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust.7 She found clear psychological differences among the three:

Bystanders see themselves as passive people, lacking in control and low in efficacy.  The Nazi self-image is as victims who need to protect themselves and their community. Rescuers consider themselves connected to all human beings through bonds of a common humanity. Bystanders and Nazis placed higher value on community and utilized ingroup/outgroup distinctions.

Rescuers employ broader categories and are inclusive, not exclusive in their classification system. Beyond this, the personal losses and trauma experienced by rescuers made them more sensitive to the plight of others; analogous losses led bystanders and Nazis to retreat into themselves and adopt a defensive posture.

woman holding a baby looking through prison wire

What is worth risking your life for?

Seeing Douglass’s story or the Holocaust rescuers as historical footnotes fails to recognize that modern-day escapes from danger continue to happen daily, witnessed by us on our television or computer screens.  We can look all over the world and find people willing to risk their lives for their own freedom or those of others, their values, or their country. 

NPR’s “Behind The Border 'Crisis': More Migrant Families Risk Dangerous Remote Crossings” says the vast majority of these migrants are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. And Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative, a humanitarian group that operates a migrant shelter in Nogales, Mexico, says U.S. immigration officials have underestimated their desperation to reach U.S. soil. "They're trying to find a route to safety," Williams said. "For them, the risks are worth it."

In the country of Belarus, population 9.5 million, protests have erupted since August 2020 when the country’s president refused to hand over power to his democratically elected successor. By November 2020, more than 25,000 had been arrested. This week, the president ordered the forced landing of a European plane over international airspace because it was carrying a journalist who had been a vocal dissenter. The journalist, Roman Protasevich, was arrested and is now imprisoned and suspected of being tortured. 

And these are but two examples outside of the US.

On the one hand, we admire their courage and audacity, and we want to offer our support. Both causes have garnered plenty of selfless support from people who have nothing to gain other than the knowledge that they are acting on the cause of justice.

On the other hand, we risk compassion fatigue.  And we wonder if we have the courage to similarly engage under life-threatening circumstances. At least I wonder. It’s easy to become a bystander, throw up your hands, and say with so much turmoil and threats to freedom around the world, what can one person do?

Sustaining commitment to a just and equitable world supported by human rights

Frederick Douglass’s heart-stopping escape, and a free Black man’s willingness to risk his own safety by lending him those papers, reverberate in the choices we all are facing today.

When I review Monroe’s data on the differences between the rescuers and the bystanders, what stands out most is the rescuers saw the common humanity of all peoples. They viewed what is intolerable as the same for everyone.  In effect, they were not engaging in support actions *for* someone different from themselves.  They were doing it for one of their own, another human being whom they viewed as similar to themselves.

The bystanders and Nazis, on the other hand, divided people into us and them.  And so it was among the past periods of retrenchment. Sound familiar today?

Today, I view my job primarily as ally – supporting those who feel the burdensome weight of oppression, sometimes feeling it myself – although I can hardly complain, considering what others are enduring. 

Every day, emails bring me petitions to sign, worthy causes to support, alarming news to consider.  I forced myself to watch Underground Railroad last week in honor of those who died.  I read Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter daily – and sometimes watch the evening news – to stay abreast of what is happening in the country and the world. 

Yes, it can be exhausting.  Yet as with Holocaust rescuers, the dangers stay ever-present for me.  I would like to believe I would have been one of them.

I have friends who have given up on the news as too disruptive of their peace of mind.  I know wellness oriented people who advise us to turn off the news to preserve our mental well-being.

I think about Frederick Douglass and the friends who helped him, the people risking everything to come to this country, the people being arrested in Belarus.  Am I willing to suspend my peace of mind to at least hear their story?  It’s my privilege to not do so, to shut it down.  That’s not what I choose to do.  If my only risk is temporary loss of peace of mind, that’s the least I can do.

And those of us involved in Leading Consciously have chosen to do more. We have chosen to produce this weekly blog for anyone who is interested in what it takes to foster justice and equity, to start Pathfinders for those who want to participate in a community of people concerned about justice in the world.  We are a small but mighty band of people who want to do our part to support those who want to do their part to make this world a fairer place for us all.

A White friend of mine lives in a predominantly White area and is working with a small group of other (mostly) Whites to foster increased diversity awareness in his community. At first he was almost apologetic that this was “all” he was doing.  I responded that considering the magnitude of the dangers faced by people in other countries, all of us would wonder if we were doing enough.  Yet if enough of us are doing something – risking our reputations and interrupting our lives to make a difference – then we are doing something.

an empty railroad track

Given the calculus that drives people to take life-threatening risks, what might we do as allies? What risks are we prepared to take?  What contributions can we make?  In Monroe’s study, would we more closely align ourselves with the rescuers or the bystanders? These are questions all of us should ask ourselves. The answer may vary from year to year, yet the accumulation of our combined efforts will certainly amount to more than nothing.  At least that is my hope.

Desmond Tutu says:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

I started this post thinking it was about the decline of support in Black Lives Matter, Frederick Douglass, and courage. I am ending it now realizing that it was actually a plea to stay engaged, to do what you can do – however large or small – to sustain the effort toward a more just society, to value the common humanity of all, to not be content with only your own well-being. 

What are the factors that lead you to sustain your commitment to promoting justice in a world plagued by so much injustice?  How do you gauge your own personal risk to step into spaces where you might be fearful or weary? 

  • To stand up in support of a coworker
  • To sign a petition about a cause in which you believe
  • To protest in the streets as Black Lives Matter supporters continue to do and as citizens of Belarus are now doing
  • To organize your community or a network of coworkers who want to foster inclusion in your organization

All of these activities are not life-threatening, but to the extent they can feel career-threatening or reputation-threatening, they still carry risks.

Finding the courage to step on that train or lend someone our papers can be daunting, no matter how theoretically large or small the challenge we set for ourselves. If we can remember the cause in which we believe, and the common humanity we share with others, then perhaps we will find and sustain that courage even through periods of upheaval and retrenchment.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  1. What would it take for you to risk everything?
  2. How do we find the courage to step on the train for other people?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Bridging differences
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • Provide support to nondominants in your group
  • Conscious use of self
    • Accept responsibility for your own contribution
    • Recognize your power and use it responsibly
  • Initiating change
    • Commit to personal change
    • Keep in mind revolutionary patience
    • Increase accountability

#BeAccountable  #BetheChange     #ChangeStartswithMe     #WhitePeoplesWork

Leading Consciously

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[1] Chudy, J. and H. Jefferson (2021). Support for Black Lives Matter Surged Last Year. Did It Last?  A Series on George Floyd and America. The New York Times. New York City.

[2] Chudy, J. and H. Jefferson (2021). Support for Black Lives Matter Surged Last Year. Did It Last?  A Series on George Floyd and America. The New York Times. New York City. 

[3] Douglass, Frederick. Eyewitness to History.

[4] Richard, H.C. (2021).  Letters from an American

[5] Habib, M. C., Mathieu; Moutier, Sylvain; et al. (2015). "Fear and anger have opposite effects on risk seeking in the gain frame." Frontiers in Psychology 6(253-1:253-7).

[6] Higginbotham, N. (2002). "Protection Motivation Theory and exercise behaviour change for the prevention of heart disease in a high-risk, Australian representative community sample of adults." Psychology, Health & Medicine7(1): 82-99.

[7] Monroe, K. R. (2008). "Cracking the Code of Genocide: The Moral Psychology of Rescuers, Bystanders, and Nazis during the Holocaust." Political Psychology, 29(5): 699-736.