LOS ANGELES, CA-Kenneth B. Morris Jr. is on a mission. His quest is to put the narrative about the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass into as many young people hands as possible. To be precise, Morris wants to see one million youths receive the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.
“Well, it’s an exciting year,” Morris declared. “This is the Frederick Douglass bicentennial and his family wanted to commemorate and celebrate and life up his life and teach younger generations about his importance and his contributions to our country, so we published a special bi-centennial edition of his narrative, which is his first autobiography, which was published first in 1845. It’s a book that the Library of Congress named as one of the 88 books that shaped America. So, we launched a project One Million Abolitionists, and we’re working over the next couple of years to give away one million copies of this book to young people everywhere.”
The most important aspect of the self-written autobiography is how individuals have the ability to transform the situation they’re in simply by learning to read and write. Douglass took advantage of being able to read and write to take himself out of slavery into becoming the most influential African American of the 19th century. His visits to the White House as a confidant to President Abraham Lincoln is a testimony to the great heights that Douglass achieved.
“The main lesson from his life and from the book is really a story about literacy,” said Morris. “If we know our American history, we know it was illegal to teach an enslaved person how to read and write, so Frederick Douglass would have to teach himself to read and write, but there was one moment in time that really changed the course of his life and the course of history in this country. That was when he was eight years old he was chosen from a slave plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland where he was born into slavery to go to Baltimore to be the house servant for his master’s brother-in-law.”
“He gets there,” Morris continues. “His slave mistress had never had a slave before, doesn’t know it’s illegal to teach him. She begins to teach young Frederick his ABC’s. His master finds out and he gets angry, and he said you cannot teach a slave how to read and write because if you do it will unfit him to be a slave. Frederick heard that message and he knew right then and there that knowledge is power, which is relevant to our young people today and education is the pathway to freedom. So, we want young people to connect with his story and the importance of education, and how education was liberation for him.”
For Morris, there is a personal connection in all of this. Morris is a direct descendant of Douglass. In fact, Morris, an acclaimed public speaker, is the great, great, great grandson of Douglass. He is also the great, great grandson of Booker T. Washington. Morris wants more of today’s youths to know about that direct pipeline from himself to Douglass and to Washington.
The best way for Morris to do that is to get Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave out to a new generation of students who might have limited knowledge of the first black man to be tabbed as a vice presidential candidate. Morris is busy trying to make that happen these days as he zips across the country, pushing the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI) project aptly labeled One Million Abolitionists. Morris co-founded and serves as president of FDFI.
“As a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass, my whole life I’ve had people of all ages and races come up to me,” said Morris. “I remember being five or six years old and having old ladies and old men come up with tears in their eyes. It was hard for me to really understand the emotional connection so many people had to my ancestors.”
That changed when he got older,” Morris said.
“It wasn’t until very late in life that I was talking to a lady and she said, ‘If I can say thank you to Frederick Douglass in person I would. Since I can’t do that you become the conduit to him.’ What she wanted to do was thank him for his words. She remembered the age she was when she first read his autobiography; she wanted to tell us how much his words impacted her life and let her be the leader in her community, her church, and her corporations. I know deep in my soul and my spirit that this book can change lives.”
To honor Douglass’s 200th birthday, FDFI will be distributing one million copies of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Among the stops Morris has made on his nationwide tour was Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles. With assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and LA Promise Fund, Morris handed out 900 copies of the book to students at Manual Arts High School.
Los Angeles Police Captain Peter Whittingham, who is the commanding officer for the department’s South Bureau Homicide Division, said the opportunity to connect history with education is a win-win on many levels for students attending Manual Arts, a school located where crime escalates throughout the surrounding neighborhood at a high clip.
“I think minority communities are starved when it comes to Black History,” said Whittingham. “I think they really don’t always understand the sacrifice that our ancestors and those who have gone before us have had to undergo in order for us to be here. I don’t think, we as black folks, understand or are attuned to the value of education, regardless on what’s going on around us. Like I said earlier about violence in this community, and there is a lot of violence in this community, in addition to issues of poverty, parenting, and everything else, I think the single component that will bring everything together is education.”
For Whittingham that education pathway begins at home. Picking up a book to read about someone who looks like you, a slave who turned himself into a well-respected scholar and equal rights proponent could be a literacy gateway for some.
“If only we have a few of these young black men, and I want to say young black men…I make no apologies for saying that because I think that young black men in this community are an endangered species,” Whittingham said. “When you look at how many of us are in the criminal justice system in one way or the other and how many of us are locked out, shut out of corporate America, we have to find ways such as sports and other equations to get in. But if only can embrace our history and understand the importance of education, then we won’t have to worry about our ability to play basketball or to play football or to sing or to rap. That’s why I think this is so important.”
Getting students up to speed about Douglass by reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave is just the tip of the iceberg for Morris and FDFI. Morris said eventually he would like to see a portrayal of his great, great, great grandpappy on the big screen someday.
“We are actually working on a biopic on the life of Frederick Douglass called ‘Mr. Douglass,’” Morris said. “We have a screenplay that is just powerful. It’s dynamic. It’s wonderful and we are working right now to find a director to make the movie and we’re looking to have something released by 2020. There has never been a feature film on Frederick Douglass. There’s been plenty of documentaries. He’s been in other people’s films. He was in Glory. It’s time.”