Frederick Douglass' North Star Newspaper Set to Relaunch


Escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass established The North Star in Rochester, NY to denounce slavery and fight for the rights of women and other oppressed groups. Wikimedia Commons

On Dec. 3, 1847, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, and Dr. Martin Delaney, a black physician, published the first issue of the anti-slavery newspaper The North Star — named for the celestial icon followed by fugitive slaves escaping to freedom.

The inimitable and steely-eyed Douglass had previously worked as an antislavery lecturer alongside his mentor and friend, the most famous white abolitionist in America, William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the renowned newspaper The Liberator.

Ultimately, though, Douglass came to believe in an independent black press that, as stated in the first issue of The North Star, represented and advocated for its own people, "not exclusively, but peculiarly — not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends."

In The North Star's premier issue, Douglass stated unequivocally:

We are now about to assume the management of the editorial department of a newspaper, devoted to the cause of Liberty, Humanity and Progress. The position is one which, with the purest motives, we have long desired to occupy. It has long been our anxious wish to see, in this slave-holding, slave-trading, and Negro-hating land, a printing-press and paper, permanently established, under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression.

What Douglass understood in the pre-Civil War era when he launched The North Star is that the voices of the oppressed needed to be heard: "... that the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT – and that he who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate Liberty."

Now, 172 years later, with the permission and blessing of the Douglass family descendants, civil rights activist and journalist Shaun King and political analyst Benjamin Dixon of The Progressive Army are rebuilding Douglass' pivotal 19th century abolitionist newspaper for a 21st century audience.

The masthead of The North Star, Frederick Douglass' antislavery newspaper, read "RIGHT IS OF NO SEX—TRUTH IS OF NO COLOR—GOD IS THE FATHER OF US ALL, AND WE ARE BRETHREN."
Flickr (CC BY-2.0)

With the stated goal "not just to change the news, but to change the world," the new incarnation of The North Star will employ diverse voices to report stories that either aren't being covered in-depth or are being overlooked altogether by the mainstream media. The goal is to eventually have a podcast, daily videos, mobile apps for both iPhone and Android, a full news website and a nightly online news broadcast.

King, CEO of the burgeoning new outlet, intends to build an independent hard news and cultural commentary platform that informs and empowers people to stand up for marginalized groups who face profound justice-related issues.

In an interview with NPR, King said, "it's necessary for where we're going and where we are as a country on issues of voting rights, police brutality, mass incarceration" that people have a news source like The North Star. Following Douglass' lead, he is transparent about the fact that the site will have a speak-truth-to-power agenda, stating, "We're really going to wear our heart and soul and beliefs on our sleeve."

King and Dixon currently are waging an online grassroots campaign to revive the iconic paper and build a liberation journalism platform that will help fight systemic injustice and corruption at what they describe on the home page as a "deeply problematic point not just in American history, but in the history of the entire world."

And they're doing it without accepting any kind of venture capital or commercial support — funding it 100 percent "by the people, for the people" as a tool to unabashedly fight for human rights and social change.

In an online video to promote membership for the subscription-only paper (monthly fees range from $5 for students, $10 for a basic membership and move incrementally higher for a wider range of access), King said, "some of the most important stories in our culture, in our communities and in the world aren't even being told right now. Part of why we're building The North Star is so that we can make sure all of our stories are being told with the color, the nuance, the dimension, and the character and skill that they deserve — and right now that's really not happening."

Frederick Douglass' great-great-great grandson, Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., co-founder and president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI), says in an email, "My great ancestor published The North Star to create a mouthpiece for enslaved and oppressed peoples. I am pleased that Shaun and Ben's enterprise will take its cue from the original paper and speak to issues afflicting all disenfranchised groups while offering perspective on issues critical to the black community."

Douglass, who was a fierce and tireless defender for individual rights, advocated in his lifetime for Native American rights, immigrant's rights and women's rights at a time when his own rights were being denied. Asked a few weeks before his death at the age of 77 what advice he would offer to a young black American, Douglass replied: "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!"

"Douglass fought against injustice wherever it existed," Morris says. "He demanded that the country and the slaveholding power be held accountable for the sin of slavery. He believed in speaking up for those who can't speak for themselves and standing up for those who can't stand up for themselves."

The North Star aims to launch on Feb. 14, 2019, on Douglass' 201st birthday. With more than 16,000 founding members already on board and a goal of 25,000 members before the launch date, King hopes to have 100,000 members by the end of 2019. Click here to help The North Star reach its goal of 25,000 members by Valentine's Day.


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