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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Black Lives Don’t Matter:  They Never Did

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During the time of the slave trade, it is estimated that some 13 million African natives were captured and sent by ship to the Americas to work plantations in both North and South America.  They were sent because they represented cheap labor.  Not free labor because slaves had to be fed, clothed, and bought.  Of these 13 million individuals, somewhere between 2-3 million men, women and children perished on the voyage over.  They died from malnutrition, disease and outright murder by hangings, drownings, and beatings.  Consider if you will the shrinkage rate.  In merchandising shrinkage of a product is the loss of a product through “unavoidable” circumstances.

A good merchandiser does everything they can to avoid shrinkage.  The loss of a product represents loss of profit for a company.  Such was not the case with the slave trade.  Every slave was regarded as property but with a difference.  They were regarded as “expendable.”

Black lives did not matter.”

A slaver or slave owner could “write” off the loss of a slave as simply a cost of doing business.  The market for slaves was never predicated on a 100 percent transfer of live merchandise.  If only 75 percent of the African natives made it over to the Americas, the cost of slaves would be based on that percentage.  The rest might today be called “collateral damage.”  They never could have been called an “unavoidable” expense since murder and starvation are hardly unavoidable.

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Much has been made of the fact that slaves were regarded as “property” by the plantation owners in the south.  Confederate apologists say that slaves were well cared.  Logically, any property would be regarded as valuable.  Thus, slaves were well fed, well clothed and well housed.  History again is a lie.   The lower the cost of maintaining a slave, the more profit for a slave owner.  Thus, little expense was allocated towards feeding, clothing, or improving the life of a slave.  In any business, the future success of the business, is related to the further development of the workers in that business.  Companies spend billions of dollars a year on Human Resource Development (HRD) activities designed to train, educate, and improve the knowledge, skills, and abilities of their workers.  This was not the case with slavery.  There were no HRD programs for slaves.

Slaves had to clothe, feed, and take care of their own medical problems.  If they died, they were expendable.  Slaves could be replaced by breeding more slaves or by raping slaves and replacing any that died.  Slaves were not educated, and laws prohibited the teaching of reading or writing to slaves.  Knowledge has always meant power and that was one thing that must be denied to slaves.  Some slaveholders would teach select slaves reading or writing skills because they needed someone to run errands for them, but this was the exception in the USA and not the rule.

1819, Missouri: Prohibited assembling or teaching slaves to read or write. 1829, Georgia: Prohibited teaching blacks to read, punished by fine and imprisonment. 1832, Alabama and Virginia: Prohibited whites from teaching blacks to read or write, punished by fines and floggings.  — Anti-literacy laws in the United States

“The United States is unique in that it is the only country known to have prohibited the education of slaves.”  — Wikipedia

“Black lives did not matter.”

Several versions including movies and stories have portrayed the life of a slave as one of happiness and joy.  This version of history shows slaves as well cared for, well treated, and generally satisfied with their station in life.  Happy to be working for their white masters, happy to be caring for the children of their white masters and happy to be singing and dancing for their white masters.   One wonders then why there were over 250 slave rebellions before slavery was abolished in 1865.  This figure does not count the number of slaves who tried to escape by running away.  The famous “underground railroad” is estimated to have helped as many as 70,000 individuals (though estimations vary from 40,000 to 100,000) escape from slavery in the years between 1800 and 1865. — Fugitive slave

See the article “Did African-American Slaves Rebel?” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The most famous slave rebellion took place in Virginia in 1831.  The rebellion was led by Nat Turner.  After a considerable number of white people were killed the revolt was finally suppressed.  As an aftermath of the revolt, 56 slaves were officially executed but over 120 other slaves and free blacks were murdered in retaliation.  Valuable black property was not so valuable when it came to revenge.  To prove that black lives were not regarded as compensable property is the fact that after the rebellion at least seven slaveowners sent legislative petitions for compensation for the loss of their slaves. They were all rejected.

Black lives did not matter.”

Again, one wonders why the happy singing slaves would go to the risk and peril of staging a slave revolt knowing full well that the consequences would mean a terrible death.  The slaves executed were often tortured and put to death with as much pain and suffering as possible.  There was no effort made to provide a humane method of execution.

Black lives did not matter.”

In 1932, The United States Public Health Service (PHS) conducted the infamous “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male.”  This so-called study took place between 1932 and 1972.

“Investigators enrolled in the study a total of 600 impoverished, African American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama.  Of these men, 399 had latent syphilis, with a control group of 201 men who were not infected.   As an incentive for participation in the study, the men were promised free medical care, but were deceived by the PHS, who disguised placebos, ineffective methods, and diagnostic procedures as treatment.   The men who had syphilis were never informed of their diagnosis, despite the risk of infecting others, and the fact that the disease could lead to blindness, deafness, mental illness, heart disease, bone deterioration, collapse of the central nervous system, and death.”Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

“Black lives did not matter.”

The Vietnam war was in full swing from 1964 to 1973 in terms of major US troop involvement.  During this period, many of the men who served in front line combat units were enlisted from the draft rolls.

“By lowering the education standards of the draft, an estimated 40% of the 246,000 draftees of Project 100,000 were Black. Some activists in the US speculated that the uneven application of the draft was a method of Black genocide. Black people were starkly under-represented on draft boards in this era, with none on the draft boards of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or Arkansas.”Military History of African Americans During the Vietnam War

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“African American troops were more likely to be assigned to combat units.  Twenty-three percent of combat troops in Vietnam were Black.  The combination of our selective service policies, our testing of both drafted and volunteers, the need for skilled enlisted men in many areas of the armed forces, all conspired to assign blacks in greater numbers to the combat units of the Army and Marine Corps.  Early in the war, when blacks made up about 11.0% of our Vietnam force, black casualties soared to over 20% of the total.”Vietnam War Statistics

“Black lives did not matter.”

A recent Harvard Study (2020) found that blacks were up to six times more likely to be killed by police during an encounter than whites.  They analyzed 5,494 police-related fatalities using data from Fatal Encounters a database of people killed in encounters with police.  There was a great deal of variation across the country but on average, blacks were three times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than whites.

The Harvard study did not show how many more times blacks are going to be encountered by police for routine matters.  A Stanford University study of nearly 100 million traffic stops from around the US has concluded that, on average, black drivers are 20% more likely to get pulled over than a white driver.  More likely to get pulled over and then more likely to get killed.  A black man or woman stopped for drunk driving is (on average) up to three times more likely than a white man or woman stopped for drunk driving to be killed during the encounter.

“Black lives still do not matter.”

A few weeks ago, up here in the North woods of Wisconsin in our rural Polk County we had a “Black Lives Matter” protest rally.  Mostly white rural people up here in our county.  About fifty or more people showed up carrying signs supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  Karen and I made two signs and joined the rally.  Looking at the numbers of white people in the country supporting this movement, I can’t help but wonder if white people are finally “woking” up.  If they are “woke” how long will they stay “woke.”

Liberal whites are for many blacks more despicable than conservative racists.  Malcolm X noted in one of his talks that:

“The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor; and by winning the friendship, allegiance, and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political “football game” that is constantly raging between the white liberals and white conservatives.”Malcom X Speech 1963.

A recent example of white hypocrisy concerns the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).  A Center long heralded for their attacking racist groups like the Aryan Brotherhood and the KKK, they recently came under attack for racial discrimination within their own ranks.  The liberal champion at this organization was a lawyer named Morris Dees.  Famed for his standing up to the Klan and for the number of threats on his life, he resigned during the turmoil over the charges against him and the SPLC.  Some employees claim that the civil rights nonprofit group suffers from a “systemic culture of racism and sexism within its workplace.”

I have had many arguments with liberal friends over the issue of racism in the USA.  I generally find that they agree with me – up to a point.  We disagree on methods of dealing with racism often with large gaps in our strategies.  There is no way a liberal will ever agree to or countenance violence against oppression.  This is the reason that Martin Luther King was championed over Malcolm X.  Malcolm X did not believe in “turning the other cheek.”  Liberals believe that you can “Reason” with racists and help them to see the error of their ways.  In 1857 Frederic Douglas gave a speech now called “If There is No Struggle, there is No Progress.” (I will “reconstruct” this speech in my next blog)

After I argue with my liberal friends (often I defend some of the violence associated with protests) they will go home to their suburban white gated communities with their security walls and security guards who make routine patrols through their neighborhoods.  Driving through these communities, you will not be surprised to find few if any minorities living within the gated walls.  When Karen and I bought a home in Arizona we had to argue with the realtor because she insisted we buy a home in a gated community where we “would be safer.”  We refused and we have Latino and Black neighbors on our street.  We have children running up and down the street and we have no walls to block our view of reality.

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Before the “Black Lives Matter” Rally began in Centuria, a small town in Polk County, an “All Lives Matter” group assembled across from us.  Sporting MAGA hats, Trump Signs and signs promoting “All Lives Matter” they watched us from across the street.  Later during the rally, they “buzzed” us with a pickup truck to harass us.  The police stationed themselves to watch for any potential violence and to keep the two groups apart.  I decided to walk down and talk to some of the guys standing near a pickup truck and ask them a few questions.

I approached two men.  One guy had a long beard, several tattoos and was probably in his sixties.  The other man was tall, muscular, a muscle t-shirt, several tattoos and was probably in his forties.  I told them that I was a member of the “Black Lives Matter” rally.  I then asked them if they supported us (I kept a straight face).  I had my Air Force veterans’ hat on.  They seemed somewhat surprised at my question and replied that “They believed all lives mattered.” They then wanted to know why we singled out only the lives of black people.  I noted the large number of blacks recently killed by police with little or no motivation.  They replied with some statistics concerning the large number of white people who are often killed by police during encounters.

I asked if either of them was a veteran.  The older guy said he was.  He said that he had served in the Army and that he was a Vietnam Veteran.  I asked if he had ever served with any black soldiers and if he thought they covered his ass when needed.  He told me that he had a great deal of respect for the black soldiers he served with.  We talked some military stuff for a few minutes and about the violence associated with some of the recent protest rallies.  I finally decided to ask one last question that I had been thinking about.  I asked “Why did you wait to protest ‘All Lives Matter’ until the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests started?”  I did not get an answer.

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I think the “All Lives Matter” slogan is a disingenuous white method of promoting racism.  It is easier to discount the effort to make black lives important by aggregating all lives into one anonymous amorphous coagulation of people who die.  Then we can ignore the black people who are subjected daily to racism and discrimination in American society.  What they are really saying is that:

Black Lives Still Don’t Matter!

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“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” —Nelson Mandela

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