“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.” —Frederick Douglass
In her introductory address to the Seneca Falls Convention on the Rights of 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton laid out the goals of the organizers:
We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.
In addition to being women’s rights activists, all five women who organized the conference—Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Jane Hunt, and Martha Coffin Wright—were also active in the Abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglass, arguably the nation’s best-known abolitionist, also attended the conference.
Born into slavery around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass believed in the equality of all people, irrespective of race, sex, or national origin. He was also a passionate advocate of education, especially for the disadvantaged.
When he was about twelve, his enslaver’s wife began, illegally, to teach him the alphabet. Having later taught himself to read, Douglass encountered newspapers, political writings, and all manner of books. Exposed by what he read to new modes of thought, he began, perhaps inevitably, first to question, and ultimately condemn, the institution of slavery.
Douglass escaped to freedom in September 1838. Settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he joined a Black church and began regularly attending abolitionist meetings. He was ordained as a minister in the African American Episcopal Church, and, in 1845, published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became an immediate bestseller. He also served as editor of several abolitionist newspapers.
Learning that the Seneca Falls Convention, at which he was the only African American in attendance, was poised to vote down a resolution calling for women’s suffrage, Douglass rose to speak in favor of the resolution.
In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman; and if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is that ‘Right is of no sex.’
The resolution, number nine of the eleven resolutions put to a vote by the conference, passed by the narrowest of margins. Of the eleven, it was the only one not to be passed unanimously. Many supporters of women’s rights, fearing the suffrage issue was too “controversial” and could siphon away resources and support for other goals of the convention, withdrew their support after the resolution’s passage.
In 1866 Douglass joined Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in founding the American Equal Rights Association, an organization devoted to the struggle for universal suffrage. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” he insisted. “It never did and it never will.” The Association folded after only three years amid tensions between the women’s rights activists and the African American rights activists—a schism that persists to this day. He remained one of the few influential figures to passionately support both causes.
During the Civil Rights Era of the 1950’s and 60’s, many white Americans complained that the struggle for African American rights was moving too quickly, and enjoined “patience” and “moderation” on the activists. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.
Perhaps anticipating this tendency for those in power to insist on “moderation” and “incremental change”, Douglass wrote, “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895.