A 1909 essay by African American educator Kelly Miller. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Kelly Miller (1863-1939), African American educator, sociologist, essayist and public intellectual. He taught for over a half-century at Howard University, beginning as a mathematics professor. For brief biographical information, see D.O.W. Holmes, “Phylon Profile IV: Kelly Miller,” Phylon 6 (1945) 2:121-125.
Beyond his professional publications, Miller’s works included Race Adjustment: Essays on the Negro in America (New York: Neale Pub. Co, 1908); Out of the House of Bondage (New York: Neale Pub. Co., 1914); Progress and Achievements of the Colored People (Washington, DC: Austin Jenkins, 1917); History of the World War for Human Rights (Washington, DC: Austin Jenkins Co., 1919); An Appeal to Conscience: America’s Code of Caste, A Disgrace to Democracy (New York: Macmillan, 1920); and The Everlasting Stain (Washington, DC: Associated Publishers, 1924). Miller was well-known for his critique of US segregation and leading segregationists, such as journalist John Temple Graves and novelist Thomas Dixon. As an early African American sociologist, Miller sought to confront anti-black racism with the evidence and arguments of his academic discipline. As a minister, he advocated the social gospel and his writings bear a strong religious imprint.
This essay, published fourteen years after Douglass’s death, seeks to understand the meaning of his life and career in the context of the early twentieth century. Kelly argues that Douglass gains his importance as a historical figure because, while he was “the one commanding historic character of the colored race in America” (214), he transcended racial barriers. The degree of Douglass’s rise was even more significant due to the racial barriers he traversed to attain such wide public respect. Miller addresses the predominant terms of intellectual debate over race during this period where he observes that while then-current discussions concerned “the relative force of environment and heredity as factors in the formation of character” (215), Douglass and his rise constituted an example of a third force, the power of will. In the following passages Miller qualifies his brief quasi-Nietzschean moment in reading Douglass and the force of will by attributing this force to divine revelation inspired by reading The Columbian Orator (216). He recommends Douglass to African American youth as “a model of manly courage” (217) and explores its nature. Commenting on such courage in the conflict over slavery, Miller voices a common African American counter-view against mainstream historiography of the period where he writes “John Brown on the scaffold dying for an alien and defenseless race is the most sublime spectacle that this planet has seen since Christ hung on the cross.” (219) Concluding, Miller identifies in Frederick Douglass a universalism based on his love for liberty, one “not limited by racial, political or geographical boundaries” (221). Miller looks to Douglass as a unifying figure for a “moral renaissance” (222) that will arouse the conscience and revitalizing energies of blacks and whites in the United States.
Source: Kelly Miller, “Frederick Douglass,” from Race Adjustment, 2nd ed.(New York: Neale Publishing Co, 1909), 213-222.
- Joe Lockard