Frederick Douglass 1852
You could be forgiven for assuming that this was part of a speech delivered during the recent Black Lives Matter campaign. A campaign that has made the world listen, stand up and take notice to the ongoing institutional racism that undoubtedly occurs around the world. Yet, these are not the words of a 21st Century orator but that of Frederick Douglass during his 1852 speech at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York.
Born into Slavery, Douglass escaped his captivity in 1838. He would go on to write about his experience as a slave in his seminal work, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845. The text highlighted the brutality inflicted in the name of the system and indeed, the cruelty suffered by those trapped within. The book would go on to become a bestseller in the northern states of the USA igniting a further desire for the abolition of slavery. However, abolition was far from a speedy process.
In 1852, Douglass let his frustrations be heard. Invited to speak to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society as part of their 4th July celebrations, Douglass delivered one of his most famous speeches. The irony of celebrating independence whilst also incarcerating over 3 million slaves who were stolen, bought and traded with impunity was not lost on Douglass. Rather than speaking on the day of U.S independence, he opted to address the society the day after.
The audience of 600 attendees had probably thought that they were on safe ground with Douglass. After all, their fight was also his own. Both parties loathed slavery and wanted to see an end to it. Perhaps they were not expecting what followed.
He highlighted that the 4th of July was not a national holiday for either himself or his race. It was the hypocritical holiday for those who claimed the importance of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for themselves only whilst others remained shackled and the property of another man.
Douglass knew the power of his words. He knew that by highlighting the hypocrisy of the national holiday and the plight of the enslaved, people would listen. He immediately printed the speech and distributed it for 50 cents a copy as he was on the road speaking to more who would listen.
Whilst it would ultimately be the Civil War that brought about an end to Slavery in the United States, Douglass’s words would go on to have a profound impact as the issue of race continued to engulf the country.
Yet, the hypocrisy that Douglass highlighted never vanished with the ending of Slavery. Whilst the chains may have been broken new methods reminded African-Americans exactly who was in charge. From Jim Crow laws, ghettoization, disenfranchisement, curfews and of course, institutionalised racism within the United States. The use of hypocrisy was later used during the years of the Civil Rights movement. The most notable to echo the sentiments of Douglass's 1852 speech was Malcolm X who in his Ballot or the Bullet speech in 1964 stated:
In many respects, it is a hypocrisy that many still endures to this day. The killing of George Floyd on the 25th May 2020 by a police officer in Minneapolis has seen a reaction many did not expect. But it is a reaction that comes after 155 years after false promises and a desire for change. The injustice of that day has now been highlighted to a new America, an America where Douglass would still be fighting to end its own hypocritical nature, where life and liberty are might be more universal but not for all.
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