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The Lessons of the Hour


An 1894 speech by Frederick Douglass to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.



Frederick Douglass (1818?-1895), African American ex-slave, abolitionist, and leader, delivered this lengthy address at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church of Washington, DC, on January 9, 1894. The “Lesson of the Hour” speech, frequently described as Douglass’ last great speech, resonates with themes developed throughout his career. Introduced by former US senator Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841-1898), an African American born in slavery in Mississippi, the speech was published subsequently as an inexpensive popular pamphlet.

Douglass begins by identifying “the so-called, but mis-called, negro problem” (3) as a problem of white mob violence that is no longer only a regional, but now a national problem. (4) Particularly in the South, he notes, mobs have replaced civil authority and due process of law. The mob “laughs at legal processes, courts and juries, and its red-handed murderers range abroad unchecked and unchallenged by law or by public opinion.” (5) Worse, the “so-called better classes” endorse the mobocracy. (6) Douglass cites the opinions of Northerners such as Massachusetts-born Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain of South Carolina, a Republican elected during Reconstruction, and suffragist Frances Willard for the support they lent to stereotypes of black rapists that rationalized lynching. (7-8) No mob, he argues, serves as a credible witness against anyone accused of a crime, let alone as a source of testimony against putative group character. This same mob, Douglass points out, is the same as has cheated blacks out of their constitutional right to vote. (10) Where once the justification for murder of blacks lay in suspicion of conspiracies, now the justification had shifted to the falsification of attacks on white women. (13) New charges were brought because old charges were no longer available. “The charge is not so much against the crime itself,” Douglass declares, “as against the color of the man alleged to be guilty of it.” (16) 

Such unfairness and bigotry is intrinsic to American culture, Douglass charges. He takes as example the recent World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where US blacks were excluded from representation and participation. (20-21) 

Douglass turns to black suffrage, characterizing the assault on African American voting rights as an assault on American republicanism. Political surrender over voting rights and black disenfranchisement, Douglass says, “has shaken my faith in the nobility of the nation.” (23) Principles thought to have been settled by the Civil War have now been overthrown. Instead, the principles of the Confederacy rule many states and are gradually capturing the Congress. “The cause lost in the war, is the cause regained in peace, and the cause gained in war, is the cause lost in peace.” (24) Moreover, the idea of colonization and the emigration of African Americans – long a bête noir for abolitionists like Douglass – is gaining new encouragement from various quarters. Douglass rejects this idea firmly: “All this native land talk is nonsense. The native land of the American negro is America.” (26) Any consideration of colonization among African Americans, according to Douglass, is a manifestation of despair over the depth of racism in the United States. It is not a solution; rather, it is an evasion. 

Douglass turns to current economic conditions of blacks. In some respects and in some localities, he asserts, blacks are living in worse conditions in the 1890s than they were under slavery. This has been the work of white supremacy asserting its demand for black labor on the cheapest available terms, Douglass holds. There has been no opportunity for most blacks to acquire capital and this has led to the intensification of their exploitation. With the new cheapness of black labor “you may easily see why the South sometimes brags that it does not want slavery back” (29); moreover, the cost of dependents now lies on blacks. Consequently, the formulation of ‘the negro problem’ is a false term: it blames the innocent and “makes the negro responsible and not the nation.” (30) Douglass emphatically rejects any address to blacks or blackness as problems. He concludes with classic abolitionist and suffragist rhetoric by invoking the promise of the Declaration of Independence and “the self-evident truths of liberty and equality” (36) as protection for all citizens.

- Joe Lockard