In 1852 Frederick Douglass gave one of the most powerful speeches of his brilliant career. As he stood before an audience in Rochester, New York, Douglass proved that there were African-Americans who were not afraid to speak out and to speak truth to power in the face of incredible odds and possible retaliation. He called into question the very principles that Americans came out to celebrate on July 4, 1852.
“What is freedom? It is the right to choose one’s own employment. Certainly, it means that, if it means anything; and when an individual or combination of individuals undertakes to decide for any man when he shall work, where he shall work and at what he shall work, he or they practically reduce that man to slavery. He is a slave,” Douglass said.
Douglass was not speaking to the choir. He was speaking to a potentially hostile audience whose sympathies were not certain. Many had friends and relatives in the slave holding states. All would not have approved of an African-American calling into question the very nature of the sacred day of American independence.
However, Douglass told the flag waving crowd that while they celebrated the nation’s freedom his people languished in the corners of American society as slaves. He said the day only reminded them of their bitter bondage. Powerful words from a man who was an escaped slave. Douglass did not speak from the things he read about slavery. He spoke from his own experience as an American slave.
During the month of February there were schools and colleges across the great nation of the United States of America celebrating the history and achievements of American-Americans. Each school assembly worked hard to keep the memory alive of a new generation. Frederick Douglass is the central figure in the fight for African-Americans to choose where they live and work. He wanted African-Americans to stand on their feet. “If a man falls let him fall. Do not prop him up. Let him stand on his own feet,” Douglass said.
Douglass was the first American slave to write an autobiography that gave clear and detailed testimony of his battle to win his freedom on his own terms. His fight with his slave overseer is legend not only for his winning the battle and giving a stern beating to the man who humiliated him; moreover, Douglass lived to write about the experience and to encourage other African-Americans to fight and die, if necessary, to be free. He was first to call his fellows into service to join President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to allow African-American men to fight in combat to achieve their freedom from slavery.
In the process of remembering so many great men and women who fought and died on the long road to freedom, Frederick Douglass should always be given his rightful place in the struggle against slavery. “Douglass was the outstanding black abolitionist. A fugitive slave, he was first introduced to the movement when in 1841 he attended an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts. After speaking there he was employed by several societies and rapidly became one of the best known orators in the United States,” said John Hope Franklin.
As this month long celebration ends, the life and times of Frederick Douglass is a worthwhile study until 2016 on the greatest orator in the fight for African-American freedom from bondage. His birthplace memorial in Maryland is also a fitting tribute to the man that history should not forget. He served his nation well and gave true meaning to every American’s right to work when and where he or she chooses to live and work.