On the eve of Juneteenth June 12, 2020
When I began to write the musical about Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, COMMON GROUND (music by Stan Wietrzychowski, book and lyrics by me) in the fall of 2014, I had no idea how closely today’s convulsions in our septic democracy would parallel the story of our musical.
Like now, there was a horrific event: the Fort Pillow massacre, where Rebel General Nathan Bedford Forrest ordered and oversaw the slaughter of captured black Union soldiers.
Like now, there was a cry for justice and for action from President Lincoln and the Federal government.
Like now, there was another killing machine let loose on our country– a civil war then, a pandemic now—that complicated the response.
Like now there were cries for retaliation, against the South then and against “thugs” today.
And like now, the massacre of innocent black men brought into sharp focus the evils of white supremacy and the poisonous rot of racism.
I’ll admit, it is disheartening to realize that history is indeed repeating itself once again. Yet there are important differences in the then and now. Then President Lincoln had issued a legal Retaliation Order that proclaimed that for every captured Union soldier killed for no other reason than the color of his skin, he would order that a captured Rebel soldier be hanged.
Think about that!
What if we had a law that for every innocent black man killed by the police, a policeman would be shot? While that might make some feel that justice had been served, I feel strongly that the majority of us would recognize the insanity of that action. However, Frederick Douglass pushed Lincoln to live up to his promise to retaliate. And, frankly, who could blame him?
Douglass had seen up close the horrors of slavery and the depravity of white supremacy. I think Douglass actually just wanted the “white man,” for once to keep his word. In the musical he sings:
I’M TIRED OF YOUR LYING, YOUR TREATING, YOUR TRICKS
YOU PROMISE US TOWERS, THEN GIVE US STICKS.
ENOUGH OF DELAYING TILL YOU FILL THE NEED
WHILE YOU ARE DELAYING MY PEOPLE BLEED.
This song is titled “WAIT.” For me, the most depressing aspect of today’s tumult is that black people are still waiting for justice.
But another difference springs to mind that helps mitigate my anguish.
Then, Douglass was practically alone in his defiance. He crisscrossed the country giving ill-attended speeches calling for Lincoln to act. He supported Fremont for President in 1864 over Lincoln and urged others to do the same. He was, in many ways, a lone voice crying in the proverbial wilderness of white indifference.
But look at today! Thousands and thousands of Americans of every stripe and status are in the streets day after day demanding justice, demanding not just another president, but real change. I like to think that if Frederick Douglass were here today, he would feel, as do I, that this time is different.
Let it be!
There is someone else I am thinking about these days. My father. I grew up in the segregated south of Greenville, South Carolina—also, I am proud to say, the home of Jesse Jackson. The injustices—nay, the racism—I witnessed on an almost daily basis seared into my soul a determination never to treat African-Americans as anything but equal and to try to do my part to ensure their equality. Just as my father did his. He was a member of the Bi-Racial Committee, formed to make sure that Greenville did not erupt into violence like so many other cities and towns as integration was implemented.
A few white community leaders met in secret with leaders from the African-American community to plot how to peacefully integrate. They purposefully did not take minutes of their meetings, knowing how fraught their conspiring was. And they succeeded.
In June, 1963, they arranged for a blacks and whites to eat together in eleven separate establishments. My father was at Woolworth’s, where a black Methodist minister and a highly-regarded white citizen sat at the counter. Plain-clothed policemen were stashed all around and photographers from the newspaper were there to record the event. Next, they arranged for African-Americans to sit downstairs in the movie theatres—first just two at a showing, then four, then eight, until all restrictions were removed. Next, the hotels and motels were prevailed upon to designate a percentage of their rooms to house delegates for a national convention of an African-American fraternity. Finally, a single brave black girl attended the middle school in the fall. Greenville had been peacefully integrated.
I think about my father and his co-conspirators as our nation tries to achieve justice once more. Would it be possible that some version of a national Bi-Racial Committee can assemble to plan and finally execute the implementation of full racial equality for all Americans? It seems almost too much to hope for, too impossible to achieve. But if my father’s legacy has taught me anything, it is that we must try. Who knows, we just might pull it off. Just like Greenville, South Carolina, did in 1963.
As I wrote COMMON GROUND, it became crucial for me to show how a radical black man and a racist white president could find a common humanity, could actually come to admire each other. I wrote it to say: if they could, so can we.
Given the magnitude of the problem of racial injustice in our country, it sometimes seems simplistic and naïve to posit such an outcome. And, as a white man, I struggle to write how Douglass responds to Lincoln’s offer of friendship. Who am I to presume to know?
COMMON GROUND poses the question: what is the answer to injustice, vengeance or finding common ground? I have done my best to be true to the feelings I believe Douglass would have had. A desire for vengeance would have been perfectly understandable. And yet Frederick Douglass chose another way.
After 400 years of oppression and injustice, it astonishes me that still today most black people do not choose to rise in vengeance. Their forbearance and forgiving spirit humble me.
Struggling to know what to do in this crucible, I am trying to channel my father’s spirit. I know listening to black people is an obvious first step, just as Lincoln had to listen to Douglass. And, yes, Douglass had to listen to Lincoln. The Bi-Racial Committee succeeded because our two races were committed to listening to each other.
How do we find common ground? There is no easy answer. But I do know the truth of what Douglass sings at the end of the musical COMMON GROUND:
“LET ME BEGIN!”
Granville Wyche Burgess