He was the first modern black man, the most photographed face of the 19th Century, a voice for justice, and an orator who spoke for three million enslaved Americans.
Frederick Douglass was born into bondage in Maryland in 1818. As a boy he worked in the house of a white mistress who taught him the rudiments of reading and writing before deciding that literacy was incompatible with slavery. But Douglass continued his studies in secret as a teen and young adult, even after being sent to a plantation where he was worked and whipped but never broken. At age 20, posing as a merchant seaman, he plotted a series of boat and train rides that took him to New York and freedom.
In the hourlong HBO documentary “Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches,” scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Blight introduce viewers to the crusade that Douglass began in 1841, when abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and other members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society invited him to deliver an address titled, “I Have Come to Tell You Something About Slavery.”
“I feel greatly embarrassed when I attempt to address an audience of white people,” began the 23-year-old Douglass hesitantly. “I am not used to speak to them, and it makes me tremble when I do so, because I have always looked up to them with fear. My friends, I have come to tell you something about slavery—what I know of it, as I have felt it. When I came North, I was astonished to find that the abolitionists knew so much about it, that they were acquainted with its deadly effects as well as if they had lived in its midst. But though they can give you its history—though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt these wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting.”
That speech made him a regular on the abolitionist lecture circuit where his authenticity and eloquence moved white audiences. But Douglass quickly tired of playing the victim. He wanted to tell his own story in his own words and in 1845 published his autobiographical, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” His narrative thrust him into such great public prominence that he fled to England for a time for fear of being kidnapped and re-enslaved. There, too, he became a sensation and, with the help of English sympathizers, purchased his freedom. When he returned to New England after two years he was no longer beholden to abolitionists such as Garrison who, though considered anti-slavery radicals, could never share his urgency. In May 1847 Douglass broke with white abolitionists in an address titled, “Country, Conscience, and the Anti-Slavery Cause.”
“I cannot agree with my friend Mr. Garrison in relation to my love and attachment to this land. I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me—do not recognize me as a man … But it is asked …” Have you not irritated … your American friends …? I admit that we have irritated them. They deserve to be irritated. I am anxious to irritate the American people … The conscience of the American public needs this irritation.”
With financial support from friends in England, Douglass started his own newspaper, The North Star, to rival Garrison’s Liberator, the voice of the white abolitionist movement. His growing militancy set the stage for the third of his five great speeches when, on July 5th, 1852, the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society invited Douglass to deliver an address that came to be known by the question it asked, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Blight, whose biography, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” inspired the HBO documentary, likened the address to a musical piece with three movements. It began with an homage to the revolutionary declaration that all men are created equal and closed with the hope that this ideal would one day be realized. But in between Douglass excoriated America’s so-called “Peculiar Institution” in what Gates, the documentarian, calls “the oratorical masterpiece of the entire abolitionist movement.”
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? … a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham … your national greatness, swelling vanity … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings … mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
In this speech delivered nine years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass seems to foresee that words and persuasion will not suffice: “For it is not light that is needed, but fire ; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
When, two years after years after the outbreak of hostilities between South and North, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass cheered his promise to make the abolition of slavery the object of the war. But he did not want freedom as a gift. He called for an end to the laws and prejudices that kept blacks from serving in the Union army. On February 6, 1863, just a month after Lincoln issued his edict, Douglass spoke in New York City on “The Proclamation and the Union Army.”
“The colored man only waits for honorable admission into the service of the country. They know that who would be free, themselves must strike the blow, and they long for the opportunity to strike that blow. Thus far, however, the colored men of the Free States, and for the most part, of the Slave States, have had their military ardor chilled by the contempt with which their offer to serve their country has been refused … I know the colored men of the North; I know the colored men of the South. They are ready to rally under the stars and stripes at the first tap of the drum. Give them a chance; stop calling them “niggers,” and call them soldiers.”
The elation Douglass felt when the Union victory ended human bondage would eventually give way to despondency as the Reconstruction Era failed permanently change attitudes and practices in the South. Led by the Ku Klux Klan, white mobs perpetrated lynchings, rapes, and other acts of terror, and enacted Jim Crow laws that effectively nullified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. In 1894, a year before his death, Douglas took the rostrum at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. to deliver his “Lessons of the Hour” address which resonates to this day.
“Strange things have happened of late and are still happening … When the moral sense of a nation begins to decline and the wheel of progress to roll backward, there is no telling how low the one will fall or where the other may stop … could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world … Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest … and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of complaint or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.”
The documentary producers had actors read excerpts from each of the five speeches and, afterward, reflect on their meaning. After reading from “Lessons of the Hour,” Jeffrey Wright asked: “How can we as a people not know of a man like Frederick Douglass?”
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