The Liberty Tradition among Black Americans

By Folsom, Burton, Jr. | Freeman, May 2005 | Go to article overview

The Liberty Tradition among Black Americans


Folsom, Burton, Jr., Freeman


"Slavery and free institutions can never live peaceably together," Frederick Douglass observed. "Liberty . . . must either overthrow slavery, or be itself overthrown by slavery."

Douglass, black America's most renowned spokesman, made this argument during the Civil War. But what about after the war? Was it proper for the government afterward to intervene and assist blacks in overcoming centuries of bondage? Many black leaders today promote affirmative action, which gives racial preferences in hiring to black Americans. But that was not the thinking of Douglass and other black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, after the Civil War.

Douglass, for example, in a major speech given in April 1865, expressed a desire for liberty alone. When the war ended, some whites and blacks wanted freed slaves to have special land grants or extensive federal aid. Douglass, a former slave himself, favored the later Civil Rights Bill of 1875, but shunned special privileges. "Everybody has asked the question . . . , 'What shall we do with the Negro?' I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us!"

Douglass used the metaphor of an apple tree to drive his point home. "If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, . . . let them fall! . . . And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! . . .[Y]our interference is doing him a positive injury."

Finally, Douglass concluded, "If the Negro cannot live by the line of eternal justice, . . . the fault will not be yours. . . . If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live."

Douglass knew much about rising and falling on his own merits. A fugitive slave, he fled northward and joined the antislavery movement in Massachusetts in 1841. He wrote an autobiography and edited the North Star, a newspaper promoting freedom for all blacks. Douglass was tall with a mass of hair, penetrating eyes, and a firm chin. Stubborn and principled, he was a captivating orator and spoke all over the United States before and after the Civil War. He was even appointed U.S. minister to Haiti in 1889.

Douglass was especially comfortable speaking before audiences committed to freedom of opportunity for blacks. Not surprisingly, therefore, he came to Michigan in the middle of the Civil War to speak at Hillsdale College, founded in 1844 as only the second integrated college in the nation. The college was somewhat depleted because most of the male students had enlisted in the Union army, which would ultimately win the war and secure the freedom that Douglass had been promoting for over 20 years.

When Douglass died in 1895, Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, became the most prominent spokesman for black Americans. Like Douglass, Washington was born into slavery, and also like Douglass, he became a forceful writer and orator. In fact, Washington researched and published a biography of Douglass to promote their mutual ideas.

For example, Washington shared Douglass's belief that equal opportunity, not special privileges, was the recipe for success for blacks. Two years after Douglass's death, Washington also made the pilgrimage to Hillsdale College and spoke to the students about promoting in the black community "efficiency and ability, especially in practical living."

He elaborated on this idea in his 1901 book Up From Slavery. "I believe," Washington insisted, "that my race will succeed in proportion as it learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner; learns to do a thing so thoroughly that no one can improve upon what it has done; learns to make its services of indispensable value."

What about discrimination-say, when a white employer uses his freedom to refuse to hire a black or to force him into segregated facilities? In such cases Washington sometimes argued for direct action. …

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