• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass begins the Civil Rights Movement

One hundred years before Rosa Parks ever boarded a bus, Frederick Douglass was hard at work breaking ground for those who would come after him. On August 16, 1841, he reached a turning point in his life. On this day, he gave his first speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Nantucket. In the process, the former slave turned budding abolitionist was so nervous, he stumbled over a good many of his words. Thankfully, the sincerity in his heart came through loud and clear. Frederick Douglass had been heard.

Following Douglass’s message, William Lloyd Garrison shouted to the crowd, “Shall such a man ever be sent back to bondage?” The crowd jumped to its feet and yelled, “No! No! No!” From that moment on, Frederick never worked another day as a laborer. With his deep and expressive voice, he now became one of America’s greatest orators. During his speeches, Douglass changed the tone of his voice to reflect two different individuals – an uneducated slave and a white master. Tall and handsome, Douglass’s mannerisms won over each new crowd.

The three month trial Douglass had agreed to became a new career. Frederick gave himself over – hook, line and sinker – to the new cause. Garrison became his mentor and Douglass hung on to every word. He was soon introduced to the abolitionist movement through Garrison’s publication, the Liberator. Now known as a “Garrisonian”, the title referenced a member of a group of men and women who proclaimed publicly their approval of the passionate views Garrison held regarding slavery and women’s rights.

The admiration Douglass held for Garrison was mirrored back to him. Douglass received glowing support from Garrison, who frequently published various speeches and articles about his budding protégée to showcase his rising influence.

Frederick became so busy with the Anti-Slavery Society, he was seldom home. Anna had never learned to read or write, so she left no record of her feelings regarding Frederick’s extended absences. With five children to care for, she had plenty to keep her busy; but she no doubt missed her husband.

On the road with the Anti-Slavery Society, Frederick still faced the problem of segregation and discrimination. When the group would go somewhere to eat, Frederick was still forced to deal with the fact he was a Negro and prohibited from sitting with his group of white associates.

As the group boarded the Eastern Railroad for a trip, the conductor told Frederick he had to go back to the Jim Crow (Negro) car. Frederick replied, “If you give me one good reason why I should, I’ll go willingly.” The conductor shouted back at him, “Because you’re black!” Apparently the conductor’s response did not come across to Frederick as “one good reason,” because he refused to budge. When the conductor and several brakemen tried to remove him, Douglass held on tight to his seat. Eventually they were able to rip the chair from the floor and tossed both the chair and Douglass from the train.

After this little episode, Eastern Railroad refused to make a stop in Lynn, Massachusetts, Douglass’s hometown, for a period of days. The railroad’s action did not go over well with the townsfolk, however, and they sounded out a severe protest. Before long, Eastern Railroad saw the error of its ways and not only began to make stops again, but ceased with the segregation; thus blacks and whites now rode together throughout Massachusetts.

Over the next few years, Frederick Douglass became the hit of the speaking circuit. Crowds in New England, New York, Ohio and Indiana would gather to hear what he had to say. During the course of his messages, Frederick never revealed where he grew up, the name of his former master or the group that helped him to escape. He did not want the Aulds to find him and he sought to protect the efforts of the Underground Railroad.

An event in October of 1842 created yet another change in Massachusetts. That month, Frederick and his friend, Charles Remond, learned George Latimer, a runaway slave from Virginia, had been arrested. Both Douglass and Remond declared the actions to be an outrage. Massachusetts labeled itself a “free” state, yet it allowed the state’s jails to be used to aide in the capture of runaway slaves. Together, the team of Remond and Douglass stirred up a tidal wave of abolitionist fervor that resulted in enough money being collected to purchase Latimer’s freedom. In addition, after a petition was signed by 65,000 outraged citizens, Massachusetts passed a law declaring the state’s officials and jails would no longer be used for the apprehension/holding of runaway slaves.

As Douglass continued to travel and speak, many in the crowds found it a challenge to actually believe this articulate individual was a former slave. The Anti-Slavery Society told Frederick to basically share his life story, but not to make a point of looking smart. They felt it better to allow the white speakers to explain the society’s movement. Frederick, however, would not comply with this. Growing tired of rehashing the same old stories, he soon took matters into his own hands.

With pen and paper in hand, this literate former slave began to compose his autobiography. Entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the book sold 4,500 copies in three months. Before long, it was translated into three languages and by the end of five years, 30,000 copies had been sold. Today, Douglass’s story is considered to be an American classic. The downside to this was the fact that in the story, Douglass revealed his real name and where he had grown up. As a result, his former master would now be able to find him, if he so chose. Thus, in the fall of 1845, Douglass packed up and left the country.

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