Color Lines, Frederick Douglass, 1883
In the late 19th century, African American participation in all phases of American life was qualified by prejudice; most avenues of social and economic improvement remained closed. Frederick Douglass, the best-known and most influential African American spokesman of his time, considered these facts and offered a solution in the following speech of September 24, 1883.
1. It is our lot to live among a people whose laws, traditions,
2. and prejudices have been against us for centuries, and from
3. these they are not yet free. To assume that they are free from
4. these evils simply because they have changed their laws is to
5. assume what is utterly unreasonable and contrary to facts.
6. Large bodies move slowly. Individuals may be converted on the
7. instant and change their whole course of life. Nations never.
8. Time and events are required for the conversion of nations. Not
9. even the character of a great political organization can be changed
10. by a new platform. It will be the same old snake though in a new
12. Though we have had war, reconstruction, and abolition as a nation,
13. we still linger in the shadow and blight of an extinct institution. Though
14. the colored man is no longer subject to be bought and sold, he is still
15. surrounded by an adverse sentiment which fetters all his movements.
16. In his downward course he meets with no resistance, but his course
17. upward is resented and resisted at every step of his progress. If he comes
18. in ignorance, rags, and wretchedness, he conforms to the popular belief
19. of his character, and in that character he is welcome. But if he shall come
20. as a gentleman, a scholar, and a statesman, he is hailed as a contradiction
21. to the national faith concerning his race, and his coming is resented as
22. impudence. In the one case he may provoke contempt and derision, but in
23. the other he is an affront to pride and provokes malice. Let him do what he
24. will, there is at present, therefore, no escape for him. The color line meets
25. him everywhere, and in a measure shuts him out from all respectable and
26. profitable trades and callings.
27. In spite of all your religion and laws, he is a rejected man. He is rejected by
28. trade unions of every trade, and refused work while he lives and burial
29. when he dies; and yet he is asked to forget his color and forget that which
30. everybody else remembers. If he offers himself to a builder as a mechanic,
31. to a client as a lawyer, to a patient as a physician, to a college as a professor,
32. to a firm as a clerk, to a government department as an agent or an officer,
33. he is sternly met on the color line, and his claim to consideration in some way
34. is disputed on the ground of color.
35. Not even our churches, whose members profess to follow the despised Nazarene,
36. whose home, when on earth, was among the lowly and despised, have yet
37. conquered this feeling of color madness, and what is true of our churches is also
38. true of our courts of law. Neither is free from this all-pervading atmosphere of color
39. hate. The one describes the Deity as impartial, no respecter of persons, and the
40. other the Goddess of Justice as blindfolded, with sword by her side and scales in
41. her hand, held evenly between high and low, rich and poor, white and black;
42. but both are the images of American imagination rather than American practices.
43. Taking advantage of the general disposition in this country to impute crime to color,
44. white men color their faces to commit crime and wash off the hated color to escape
45. punishment. In many places where the commission of crime is alleged against one
46. of our color, the ordinary processes of the law are set aside as too slow for the
47. impetuous justice of the infuriated populace. They take the law into their own
48. bloody hands and proceed to whip, stab, shoot, hang, or burn the alleged culprit,
49. without the intervention of courts, counsel, judges, juries, or witnesses. In such
50. cases it is not the business of the accusers to prove guilt, but it is for the accused
51. to prove his innocence, a thing hard for any man to do, even in a court of law,
52. and utterly impossible for him to do in these infernal lynch courts.
53. A man accused, surprised, frightened, and captured by a motley crowd,
54. dragged with a rope around his neck in midnight-darkness to the nearest tree,
55. and told in the coarsest terms of profanity to prepare for death, would be
56. more than human if he did not, in his terror-stricken appearance, more confirm
57. suspicion of guilt than the contrary. Worse still, in the presence of such
58. hell-black outrages, the pulpit is usually dumb, and the press in the neighborhood
59. is silent or openly takes sides with the mob. There are occasional cases in
60. which white men are lynched, but one sparrow does not make a summer. Everyone
61. knows that what is called lynch law is peculiarly the law for colored people
62. and for nobody else.
63. If there were no other grievance than this horrible and barbarous lynch-law
64. custom, we should be justified in assembling, as we have now done, to expose
65. and denounce it. But this is not all. Even now, after twenty years of so-called
66. emancipation, we are subject to lawless raids of midnight riders, who, with
67. blackened faces, invade our homes and perpetrate the foulest of crimes upon
68. us and our families. This condition of things is too flagrant and notorious to
69. require specifications or proof. Thus in all the relations of life and death we
70. are met by the color line. We cannot ignore it if we would, and ought not if
71. we could. It hunts us at midnight, it denies us accommodation in hotels and
72. justice in the courts; excludes our children from schools, refuses our sons
73. the chance to learn trades, and compels us to pursue only such labor as will
74. bring the least reward.
75. While we recognize the color line as a hurtful force, a mountain barrier
76. to our progress, wounding our bleeding feet with its flinty rocks at every
77. step, we do not despair. We are a hopeful people. This convention is a proof
78. of our faith in you, in reason, in truth, and justice; our belief that prejudice,
79. with all its malign accompaniments, may yet be removed by peaceful means;
80. that, assisted by time and events and the growing enlightenment of both
81. races, the color line will ultimately become harmless. When this shall
82. come it will then only be used, as it should be, to distinguish one variety
83. of the human family from another. It will cease to have any civil, political,
84. or moral significance, and colored conventions will then be dispensed with
85. as anachronisms, wholly out of place — but not till then.
Douglass, Frederick. "The Color Line in America (1883)." Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Black History. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.
Throughout the passage, when Douglass uses the term "we" he is referring to