During Black History Month (February), students learn about civil rights activists of recent decades—Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, James Meredith, and numerous others. That’s good, but students should also become acquainted with the many black entrepreneurs, authors, sports achievers, medical professionals, musicians, and statesmen in American history, too.
A leading candidate for the greatest black American ever would surely be the former slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass.
In a 2018 article commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth titled “The Stirring Eloquence of Frederick Douglass,” I wrote:
It should come as no surprise to learn that Frederick Douglass played a pivotal role in the transformation of the American conscience. For centuries before 1800, slavery was common in the world and widely accepted. A hundred years later, it was mostly gone and everywhere condemned. Among those in America who helped accomplish that noble objective, Frederick Douglass used words as weapons to amazing and lasting effect.
Let us remember Douglass in his own words, for they rank among the most memorable and persuasive in our past. Here is a selection of his best:
- “The practice, from week to week, of openly robbing me of all my earnings, kept the nature and character of slavery constantly before me. I could be robbed by indirection, but this was too open and barefaced to be endured. I could see no reason why I should, at the end of each week, pour the reward of my honest toil into the purse of any man.”
- “It was not the race or the color of the Negro that won for him the battle of liberty. That great battle was won not because the victim of slavery was a negro, mulatto, or an Afro-American, but because the victim of slavery was a man and a brother to all other men, a child of God, and could claim with all mankind a common Father, and therefore should be recognized as an accountable being, a subject of government, and entitled to justice, liberty and equality before the law and everywhere else.”
- “I have shown that slavery is wicked—wicked, in that it violates the great law of liberty, written on every human heart—wicked, in that it violates the first command of the Decalogue—wicked, in that it fosters the most disgusting licentiousness—wicked, in that it mars and defaces the image of God by cruel and barbarous inflictions—wicked, in that it contravenes the laws of eternal justice, and tramples in the dust all the humane and heavenly precepts of the New Testament.”
- “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
- “I would unite with anybody to do right; and with nobody to do wrong.”
- “Men have their choice in this world. They can be angels, or they may be demons. In the apocalyptic vision, John describes a war in heaven. You have only to strip that vision of its gorgeous Oriental drapery, divest it of its shining and celestial ornaments, clothe it in the simple and familiar language of common sense, and you will have before you the eternal conﬂict between right and wrong, good and evil, liberty and slavery, truth and falsehood, the glorious light of love, and the appalling darkness of human selﬁshness and sin. The human heart is a seat of constant war… What takes place in individual human hearts often takes place between nations, and between individuals of the same nation.”
- “I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.”
- “The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation's history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny. Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and whatever cost.”
- “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
For additional information, see:
“Frederick Douglass: Heroic Orator for Liberty” by Jim Powell
“The Stirring Eloquence of Frederick Douglass” by Lawrence W. Reed
“McCoy, Reynolds and Pelham: Black Entrepreneurs, Models Too Often Forgotten” by Lawrence W. Reed
The Silver Trumpet of Freedom: Black Emancipators and Entrepreneurs – a free eBook edited by Lawrence W. Reed
“The Liberty Tradition Among Black Americans” by Burton W. Folsom
“Frederick Douglass Insisted that Identity Politics is Not the Answer” by Peter C. Meyers
“Frederick Douglass on His Escape from Slavery” by Frederick Douglass
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass