Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

57 SHOULD COLORED MEN BE SUBJECT TO THE PENALTIES OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW?

Charles H. Langston

Charles H. Langston ( 1817-1892), a black leader in Ohio, was especially active in resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. In September 1858 he joined with students of Oberlin College and citizens of the town in rescuing John Price, a recaptured fugitive slave, who was being held in the neighboring town of Wellington. Price was removed from custody and transported to Canada and freedom. Langston was the second to be tried for violating the law in the famous case, and he delivered a brilliant and moving speech in answer to the question of the judge as to why the sentence should not be pronounced. His speech struck the court so favorably that even though he was sentenced to twenty days imprisonment and fined $100 and costs amounting to $872.72, it was a much lighter sentence than that given to his white predecessor, whose actions were judged equally "criminal." One aspect of Langston's defense that is especially interesting is his plea that he was not tried before an unprejudiced jury of peers. But Langston's defense rests primarily on his denunciation of the unjust law under which he was convicted.

John Mercer Langston, Charles Langston's famous brother, later professor of law at Howard University and congressman from Virginia, wrote an account of the "Oberlin-Wellington Rescue" in the Anglo-African Magazine of June 1859 (pages 209-16), printing his brother's speech to the court. He described Charles Langston as follows: "He is widely known as a devoted and laborious advocate of the claims of the Negro to liberty and its attendant blessings. Discreet and farseeing, uncompromising and able, he has labored most efficiently in behalf of the slave and the disfranchised American." The speech was reprinted in pamphlet form and in leading newspapers throughout the North.

I AM for the first time in my life before a court of justice, charged with the violation of law, and am now about to be sentenced. But before receiving that sentence, I propose to say one or two words in regard to the mitigation of that sentence, if it may be so construed. I cannot, of course, and do not expect that which I may say will in any way change your predetermined line of action. I ask no such favor at your hands.

I know that the courts of this country, that the laws of this country, that the governmental machinery of this country, are so constituted as to oppress and outrage colored men, men of my complexion. I cannot then, of course,

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