If abolitionist Frederick Douglas appeared today in New Jersey and asked for political support from the African American community, he might be surprised at the fact that his political affiliation would far eclipse his accomplishments. Douglas was a Republican.
In April of 1865, shortly after the Civil War ended, and President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Douglas gave a speech at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston. At issue was the voting rights of Black men and to this subject Douglas remarked:
“I have had but one idea for the last three years to present to the American people, and the phraseology in which I clothe it is the old abolition phraseology. I am for the immediate, unconditional, and universal enfranchisement of the black man, in every State in the Union. Without this, his liberty is a mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain the old name of slavery for his condition; for in fact, if he is not the slave of the individual master, he is the slave of society, and holds his liberty as a privilege, not as a right. He is at the mercy of the mob, and has no means of protecting himself.”
Drawing loud applauses from the previous line, Douglas went right into the heart of his speech. He deviated from the conventional thought of most abolitionists, which at the time was that the right to vote should come last. The immediate need for African Americans, most thought, was to end slavery, organize and let voting naturally come at the end of the abolitionist movement. Douglas remarked: “It may be objected, however, that this pressing of the Negro’s right to suffrage is premature. Let us have slavery abolished, it may be said, let us have labor organized, and then, in the natural course of events, the right of suffrage will be extended to the Negro. I do not agree with this.”
Five years after his speech, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited the States and Federal government from denying African Americans the right to vote. Thereafter, Thomas Mundy Peterson, a Republican, on March 31, 1870 cast the first vote ever by a Black man, under the just-enacted Amendment, during the Perth Amboy, New Jersey, School Board Elections.
The right to vote, not only for African Americans, but for women, was very important to Douglas. So it is with this background that I write about a very important vote to ensue. There is likely to be a committee vote this month to advance the nomination of Bruce A. Harris, Esq. to the Supreme Court of the same State where Thomas Mundy Peterson cast his historic vote.
Harris, to the best of my knowledge, is not endorsed by any African American organizations, including those that I am a member of; and I have made fruitless inquiries as to the dearth of support.
The deafening silence by African American organizations as to the nomination of Harris underscores a serious problem in my community. For too many African Americans, Black equals Democrat and liberal. Accordingly, if one is Republican and Black, he or she is not “our kind of Black.” This monolithic approach to politics robs, and continues to deprive, African Americans of greater political clout. If the community desires the advancement of African Americans, need it be only for the advancement of African American Democrats? Working only one side of the aisle results in the absence of African American interests at the table where decisions are made that affect African American interests.
Of course, Harris is a Black, Republican Yale Law School graduate. The last time a Black Republican Yale Law School graduate was scheduled to appear before a legislative body for approval to advance to the position of Supreme Court Justice, it was Clarence Thomas; and the backlash from that moment in time—for African Americans— fails to fade from memory.
For better or for worse, Harris is not Clarence Thomas. He is an attorney, and for eight years served on the council of the borough of Chatham. Last fall he was elected as the borough’s Mayor. As any councilman or mayor will attest to, their job entails real world problem solving. He thus has the background, that of an elected official, that many credit for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s ability to apply the letter of the law in a pragmatic fashion.
Harris has no record of involvement in matters likely to be detrimental to Blacks, Whites Republicans or Democrats. All Harris has that appears to make African Americans uneasy, is the scarlet letter “R”, Republican.
I am in no way saying that Harris is akin to Frederick Douglas; or even Clarence Thomas. I just ask that my community remember to judge one by the contents of his character and not by the contents of his voter registration form. Only when we do this do we honor Douglas, Peterson and the power of the vote.
The author is an attorney with Anyanwu Associates, LLC