Reconstructing the Great Speeches – Frederic Douglass: “If There is No Struggle, there is No Progress”

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Actually, the name of this speech is the “West India Emancipation Speech.” However, the line from Douglass’s speech that “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” is one of the most memorable lines in the history of speech.  I first read about the life of Frederic Douglass sometime around the end of the sixties.  As you may know, this was a time of social unrest and many assaults on the systems that governed the USA.  I had become involved with a number of leftist groups and was reading Marx, Marcuse, Anarchist, Socialist and other writings belonging to what might be called a genre of “radical” literature.  I became interested in anyone who championed change in our government, and this of course led me to a number of black authors.

I first read about the life of Douglass (1818–1895) in his autobiography (“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, 1845).  When I finally decided to go to college at the age of 25, I was required to take a speech class.  The year was 1971 and I was 25 years old.  The school offered me the opportunity to test out of the class.  I was required to do a speech in front of a professor who then would decide if I could bypass the class.  I decided to do an excerpt from Douglass’s “West India Emancipation Speech.”  I was enamored of this speech years ago and today it is still one of the most memorable speeches that I have ever heard.  Evidently, I did a good enough job on the speech since I was given credit for the class and I did not have to take it.

Context:

Frederic Douglas gave this speech on August 3, 1857 at Canandaigua, New York.  It was an address concerning the history of the West Indian slaves in their own struggle for freedom.  After years of slave revolts and civil disorder, England had abolished slavery in the British West Indies in 1834.  Douglass used the anniversary of this event as leverage for speaking out against slavery in the United States.  It epitomized his views concerning the role of struggle in the battle against slavery.  The slaves in the West Indies achieved their freedom only after many years of struggles and reprisals against the British slave owners.

81IYcBLyoILTwenty-three years later, when Douglass gave his speech, the turmoil in the United States over the issue of slavery was growing.  It had always been a major source of dissension in the United States, but things were coming to a boiling point.  The Dred Scott decision had recently been rendered by the US Supreme Court.  This decision held that black people were not citizens and that slaves could not sue for freedom.  In March of 1857, James Buchanan was sworn in as the 15th President of the USA.  Buchanan was no friend of the abolitionists and he joined the Southern leaders in attempting to admit Kansas as a slave state.  He strongly supported the Dred Scott decision and today he would be considered an ardent racist.  The contrast between Lincoln who was elected four years later and Buchanan in terms of their policies towards slavery was the final straw that led to the Civil War.

Frederic Douglass was born a slave but escaped from Maryland to the north in 1838.  Douglass was 20 years old at the time.  He had taught himself to read and write.  He had natural skills for oratory and writing and it did not take him long to establish himself in the Abolitionist Movement as a leader and speaker against slavery.  Frederic was a man of deep compassion and empathy for others.  Douglas not only supported the rights of all minorities including Native Americans and Chinese immigrants to freedom and equality, but he also championed the rights of women to vote and to have full participation in government and civic affairs.

West India Emancipation Speech:

“The general sentiment of mankind is that a man who will not fight for himself, when he has the means of doing so, is not worth being fought for by others, and this sentiment is just. For a man who does not value freedom for himself will never value it for others, or put himself to any inconvenience to gain it for others.”

Reading this speech again after many years reminds me of how much I still adore the words and thoughts that Douglass has voiced.  I would not want a man as a friend who will not stand up for himself or others.  I loathe sycophants such as those who surround Trump.  I hate (yes hate) people who will abuse, denigrate, or attack other people.  I have fought physically and verbally to defend people who were helpless or were being bullied.  I would do so now and tomorrow.  The meek may inherit the earth but they will need the angry antagonistic people like me to acquire their inheritance.  I am glad that I do not profess to be a Christian because I do not believe in turning the other cheek.  Not once, not ever.  If there is a hell, I will go proudly to it knowing that I have fought to defend the rights of others.

“Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”

No nation or people in history were ever given their freedom by others.  Those who want freedom must take it for themselves.  Douglass was well aware of the struggles of other nations to achieve their independence.  He noted the struggles of the Turks and the Hungarians and the Irish to achieve their independence.

“I know, my friends, that in some quarters the efforts of colored people meet with very little encouragement. We may fight, but we must fight like the Sepoys of India, under white officers. This class of Abolitionists don’t like colored celebrations, they don’t like colored conventions, they don’t like colored antislavery fairs for the support of colored newspapers.”

The sentiments that Douglass voiced here are hard for many white people to understand or accept.  When Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) the 4th Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee wanted black people as the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the sixties many white people were indignant.  How could they want to kick us out?  “We have marched, we have rallied, we have sat side by side with black people to help overcome racism and now they are turning on us?”

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When Ture supported the concept of “Black Power” many former white supporters were threatened.  In a “Black Power” speech in 1966 Ture said: “It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” Black Power reflected the anger and pent-up disappointment with a system of white power that was forever promising blacks’ freedom and equality but never delivering on the promise.  Many white liberals thought that black folks were now going to far.

White leaders in the Civil Rights Movement did not and could not understand the needs of black people to lead their own struggle and fight for freedom and liberty.  Black people knew and understood that freedom achieved by others or given by others was no real freedom.  The fight against racism meant that blacks must lead the fight and white supporters must follow.  Frederic Douglass understood this concept one hundred year before the term Black Power was first used.

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. 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…. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate 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.

His words have never been truer.  Greece fought the Persians.  Rome fought the Carthaginians.  England fought the Spanish.  The US fought the British.  The Chinese fought the Europeans.  Throughout history, countries have only achieved their independence by a struggle that as Douglass noted:  “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.” 

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Today we see protests against racism that are led under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Some of these protests and rallies remain peaceful while at times others have become violent.  Many decry the violence, looting and physical attacks on the police that sometimes break out during these rallies.  I don’t defend the violence as necessary not do I defend the attacks on police as warranted unless they are in self-defense.  However, I do understand the difference between cause and effect.  When you are in a shell game, they tell you to “Keep your eye on the ball.”  This is almost impossible to do.  It is also impossible during the middle of the racism and prejudice that surrounds us to remember who the enemies and oppressors really are.

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The police that are supposedly there to “Serve and Protect” seem more likely to be there to “Preserve and Protect” the status quo and the interests of big business.  Too often, the mere presence of police in SWOT uniforms and riot gear at rallies serves to antagonize and provoke more violence.  The very nature of SWOT uniforms and riot gear is both threatening and violent in and of itself.  To stand there peacefully holding a sign while surrounded by people with batons, mace, tasers, automatic rifles and handguns takes a fortitude that not many people have.  If you want to criticize a Black Lives Matter rally, you should first come out from your gated community and join a rally.  See how you feel when law enforcement is present and looking over your shoulder with a rifle.

Should the rallies result in physical harm to others or to property?  The answer is obvious, and it is no.  But when I hear the outcries against such violence, I think back on Douglass’s words that:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate 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.”

I repeat these words from above since I think they bear reflection.  Douglass knew that many abolitionists thought that slave revolts were “prejudicial to their cause.”  The same is often heard today when rallies turn violent.  But I want to ask, who is making this claim?  It is easy to stand on the sidelines and applaud but not so easy to stand up to violence being inflected physically on those who are protesting peacefully as has happened during Trumps recent Bible photo op outside the White House.

“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 measure 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.

downloadToday we are witnessing a descent into tyranny and demagoguery the likes of which have never before been seen in America.  We have a President who lies whenever he speaks.  We have a Republican party that abhors social justice and will do everything they can to suppress the rights of Americans to vote.  We have a base of supporters for Trump that are racist, fascist, and anti-democratic.  Lured by whatever sirens they listen to; they support the right of Trump to do whatever he wants to do.  They call him their Messiah and voice unconditional support for his attacks on the press, minorities, immigrants, women, blacks, Latinos, disabled, foreign countries and even the disabled.  A President who is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives to support his quest for a second term.

On a recent trip, I passed a sign in front of a house that read “Apathy is not an option.”  I am sure I know what the person meant who posted this sign.  Douglass would know what it meant and would fully understand that anyone professing a desire to stand on the sidelines would soon find themselves ruled by a tyrant.  There is no option today except to fight.  To paraphrase Patrick Henry, the chains of Americans are being forged in the White House.  They are being forged in the Senate.  They are being forged in the Supreme Court.  They are being forged wherever the Republican Party has attained a majority.  Quietly submit and you will attain the full measure of tyranny and injustice that your acquiescence has earned.

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