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Douglass' "Lessons of the Hour"

In the first three paragraphs of his last speech, “Lessons of the Hour (1894),” Frederick Douglass, already well known, introduces himself as having “the qualifications indicated” to testify about lynching. He leaves the particulars of his qualifications for his listeners (and later his readers) to recall, namely that he is a colored man and former slave with a(n) autobiography(ies) containing prefaces attesting to Douglass’ truthfulness, that his education demonstrates an understanding of complex problems, that his citizenship shows his investment in the “so-called, but mis-called, negro problem” that affects not just the South but the “good name and fame of the Republic” (par. 4), and that his work as a journalist and statesman, a man given responsibilities by the government, make him a credible witness.

Douglass’ testimony is “wise and necessary to…bring out the whole truth”, and unlike that of the false witnesses the religious leaders long sought after and of whom two eventually accused Jesus in Matthew 26:59-63 in order to put Jesus to death by religious law, his testimony is true and will differ from the accounts of mob violence given by both Northern and Southern observers, indicating that both Northern and Southern accounts are false.

In speaking out, Douglass risks his own safety. According to Andrews, Ida B. Wells had already been arguing publicly that lynching was a “terror campaign unleashed to threaten any black man whose pride or achievement might challenge the racial status quo” and her “antilynching journalism led to threats on her life in the South” (339). Douglass’ extensive travels, frequent speeches, and achievements (see Andrews’ Chronology of Douglass’ life, pp. xi - xiii) left him vulnerable to an angry mob of whites intent on silencing Douglass, thus Douglass self-deprecatingly refers his many deficiencies and the audience’s esteemed position as “[f]riends and fellow citizens” whose time he does not wish to waste because his speech is of “a noble object and a fixed and earnest purpose.” Douglass creates a hospitable environment for him to function as a witness (much unlike Malcolm X, who referred to “friends and enemies” in the introduction to many of his speeches).

Douglass says he will state the facts (“within the bounds of truth”) about the situation regarding black males’ situation, calling them “a long-suffering people” much like the Israelites of the Old Testament, both of whom were long persecuted and misrepresented. As a third witness (the first two being white Southerners and white Northerners) to the relations “between the white and colored people of the Southern States”, Douglass trades on his education, unimpeachable personal experience with slavery as presented in his autobiography, and his status as a statesman and journalist while demonstrating humility (“whatever else I may be deficient”) before his esteemed audience “by whose presence [he is] now honored.”

His third witness view of the situation regarding mob rule and lynching slights Southerners when he discusses their “peculiar environments” and the “higher civilization” of Northern culture, but Douglass emphasizes that one of the witnesses in this case “has a powerful motive for concealing or distorting the facts”; it is a Southerner’s duty to protect himself and his way of life. But Northerners, Douglass says, do not have the correct facts either as they have ignored or rationalized lynching (“palliated,” Andrews 339), and this “more damaging and distressing” concealment and distortion of facts requires that Douglass make the case of the black man’s innocence known to all who will hear him, much as all who later heard the testimony against Jesus as false and accepted the Gospel witnesses’ accounts as true. Here, Douglass’ job is “to bring out the whole truth” and to do so fearlessly, much unlike Peter, who in the Gospels repeatedly denied the truth of his relationship with Jesus out of fear of death (Matthew 25:58, 69-75). Douglass will not be fearful like Peter, and he will not be like the false witnesses for what he says he says “in the firm belief that [his] testimony is true.” He has no reason to lie or spin the facts as an impartial third witness.

While acknowledging his own experience as a black man and former slave, Douglass sets himself as separate from all participants, so he doesn’t fully follow the idea that his testimony is based upon experience or that his testimony is solely that of a witness. Instead, he rhetorically begins to place himself as judge of events for later in his speech when he condemns Americans for their lack of respect for blacks in America (357), blacks lack of a native land (similar to Exodus imagery but with the twist that America is now their native land due to their mixed heritage (358)), the re-enslavement of Southern blacks through the sharecropping system (359-360), the failure of the Declaration of Independence and Christians to protect black Americans (361), their blaming the Civil War on the black man (362), and their violation (outright by Southerners, by ignoring Southern actions by Northerners) of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (365), and basically their denial that the black man is actually a man in the same manner a white man is a man (364-5).

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. “Chapter 11: Preface to ‘Lessons of the Hour.’” The Oxford Frederick Douglas Reader. Oxford UP, 1996, p. 339.

Douglass, Frederick. “The Lessons of the Hour.” The Oxford Frederick Douglas Reader, edited by William L. Andrews, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 340-366.

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