On this daySep 24, 1883

Frederick Douglass Urges Black Convention To Be Hopeful Amidst Racial Terror

On September 24, 1883, prominent African American leader Frederick Douglass addressed the National Convention of Colored Men in Louisville, Kentucky. In his speech, 65-year-old Douglass drew from his long history as an abolitionist, writer, and advocate for the rights of black Americans to urge the men in attendance to stand up for their rights, stay hopeful, and hold firm the ideals of democracy.

“We hold it to be self-evident,” Douglass declared to the attendees, “that no class or color should be the exclusive rulers of the country. If there is such a ruling class there must of course be a subject class, and when this condition is once established this government by the people, of the people, and for the people will have already perished from the earth.”

The first National Convention of Colored Men was held in 1843 in Buffalo, New York. Hundreds of black men attended that gathering, including men who had never been enslaved and others who – like Frederick Douglass – had escaped slavery and fled north. By the 1883 convention in Kentucky, the Civil War had been fought and won by the Union, slavery had been abolished, and black people were legal citizens under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, as Douglass’s speech described, black Americans faced major obstacles to equality and serious threats to their safety and freedom:

Even now, after twenty years of so-called emancipation, we are subject to lawless raids of midnight riders, who, with blackened faces, invade our homes and perpetrate the foulest of crimes upon us and our families. This condition of things is too flagrant and notorious to require specifications or proof. Thus in all the relations of life and death, we are met by the color line. We can not ignore it if we would, and ought not if we could. It hunts us at midnight, it denies us accommodation in hotels and justice in the courts; excludes our children from schools, refuses our sons the chance to learn trades and compels us to pursue only such labor as will bring the least reward. While we recognize the color line as a hurtful force, a mountain barrier to our progress, wounding our bleeding feet with its flinty rocks at every step, we do not despair. We are a hopeful people.

Just weeks after Frederick Douglass delivered this speech, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, permitting racial segregation in public accommodations and setting the stage for Jim Crow laws and institutionalized inequality that would hamper black advancement for generations.

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