History

No Struggle, No Progress: the Frederick Douglass Speech We All Need to Memorize

Ajah Hales
2 min readSep 7, 2023

Because sometimes violence is the answer

A burning car
Photo by Flavio on Unsplash

When it comes to Black historic figures, their entire catalog of work is usually reduced to their greatest hits (*coughs in I have a dream*), and Frederick Douglass is no exception.

I grew up hearing the famous quote “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” What I didn’t grow up with was the inflammatory and infamous speech this quote was taken from.

On August 3, 1857, Douglass spoke at the 23rd West India Emancipation celebration at Canandaigua, New York. After giving a cursory nod to the so -called morality of British abolitionists, he spoke at length about how Black violence was a necessary component of abolition.

“What Wilberforce was endeavoring to win from the British Senate by his magic eloquence, the Slaves themselves were endeavoring to gain by outbreaks and violence. The combined action of one and the other wrought out the final result. While one showed that slavery was wrong, the other showed that it was dangerous as well as wrong.”

Douglass called Margaret Garner, a Black woman who killed her daughter rather than allowing her to be re-enslaved, a benefactress of the race and praised William Parker, a formerly enslaved person who organized militias to prevent re-enslavement of Black Americans by any means necessary.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting The Modern Medea
Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting The Modern Medea

Douglass knew that insurrection wasn’t working against abolition, it was a necessary component of liberosis. Towards the end of his speech, he references Nat Turner’s rebellion, saying: “Virginia was never nearer emancipation than when General Turner kindled the fires of insurrection at Southampton.”

Frederick Douglass’ message still holds true today. Sweeping social change can be accomplished through non-violence, but violent insurrection is the most viable way to alter the power dynamic between a ruling class and the proletariat. History bears this out in every generation.

Insurrection is a message even the staunchest allies of white supremacy can understand — If you try to take a Black life, be prepared to lose your own.

I think that’s why the folding chair as a symbol of Black resistance resonates so strongly with millennials — it shows that our generation will not stand for continued victimization of the Black body.

Turns out, our ancestors didn’t either.

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Ajah Hales

World Changer. Social Thinker. Business Owner. #WEOC