April 16, 1883 – Frederick Douglass on the Weight of Prejudice on Blacks

On this day in history, the great intellectual and orator Frederick Douglass delivered a speech commemorating the twenty-first anniversary of emancipation in the District of Columbia. In his speech, the last one he gave, he looked back with unfortunate prescience on the condition of blacks since emancipation and reflected on new challenges.

Frederick Douglass, circa 1874

Frederick Douglass, circa 1874

He observed:

While a slave there was a mountain of gold on his breast to keep him down–now that he is free there is a mountain of prejudice to hold him down. . . . If his course is downward he meets very little resistance, but if upward, his way is disputed at every turn of the road. If he comes in rags and in wretchedness, he answers the public demand for a negro, and provokes no anger, though he may provoke derision, but if he presumes to be a gentleman and a scholar, he is then entirely out of his place. He excites resentment and calls forth stern and bitter opposition. If he offers himself to a builder as a mechanic, to a client as a lawyer, to a patient as a physician, to a university as a professor, or to a department as a clerk, no matter what may be his ability or his attainments, there is a presumption based upon his color or his previous condition, of incompetency, and if he succeeds at all, he has to do so against this most discouraging presumption.”


It is a real calamity, in this country, for any man, guilty or not guilty, to be accused of crime, but it is an incomparably greater calamity for any colored man to be so accused Justice is often painted with bandaged eyes. She is described in forensic eloquence, as utterly blind to wealth or poverty, high or low, white or black, but a mask of iron however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial. Here, even more than elsewhere, he will find all presumptions of law and evidence against him. It is not so much the business of his enemies to prove him guilty, as it is the business of himself to prove his innocence. The reasonable doubt which is usually interposed to save the life and liberty of a white man charged with crime, seldom has any force or effect when a colored man is accused of crime. Indeed, color is a far better protection to the white criminal, than anything else.”


You can read the entire speech here.


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