Frederick Douglass and Beyond
Community conversations about race and racism.
We now strongly encourage communities to go “beyond Frederick Douglass” by engaging with more contemporary writings on race and racism from a variety of sources. We have listed some recommended readings below:
Malcolm X: “The Ballot or the Bullet”
Malcolm X was a polarizing figure who declared that the mainstream civil rights movement was naïve in hoping to secure freedom through integration and nonviolence. “The Ballot or the Bullet” became one of Malcolm X’s most recognizable phrases, and the speech was one of his greatest orations. He outlined a new, global sensibility in the fight for racial justice: “We intend to expand [the freedom struggle] from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights.” Download a PDF of this speech.
Mary Frances Berry: “100th Anniversary of Plessy v. Ferguson”
Mary Frances Berry is a scholar and civil rights activist who rose from a childhood of stark poverty in the segregated South to become a high-ranking federal official and a professor at an Ivy League university. The subject of Berry’s speech is the historic Supreme Court decision in 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, which Brown sought to reverse. The Plessy decision upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in public accommodations under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Download a PDF of this speech.
Lorraine Hansberry: “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash”
In 1959, playwright Lorraine Hansberry made history as the first black woman to have a show produced on Broadway. The play was A Raisin in the Sun, a story about a black working-class family in Chicago trying to escape the ghetto. She delivered this speech at the Town Hall forum in 1964. The memory of her father’s failure to shake segregation through legal means shaped her plea for action. Having tried “respectable” ways to battle injustice, she said, it was time to get radical. Download a PDF of this speech.
Shirley Chisholm: “Speech at Howard University”
Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to Congress, as well as the first black woman to seek a major party nomination for the White House. Chisholm has been an inspiration to generations of women and African Americans, a trailblazer who helped open up American politics to women and minorities. In this speech, Chisholm argued that “power concedes nothing” unless challenged, but that “black power” would never be more than a protest slogan unless African Americans took action from within the political system as well as out on the streets. Download a PDF of this speech.
William Julius Wilson: “The American Underclass: Inner-City Ghettos and the Norms of Citizenship”
William Julius Wilson is an eminent sociologist who has spent his career tackling one of the nation’s most vexing problems: deep and persistent poverty in America’s inner cities. This speech addresses an abiding ideological debate: Whose fault is persistent black poverty? Is it deeply rooted racism that continues to block black opportunities for success, or a “culture of poverty” created by African Americans and abetted by the very anti-poverty programs designed to help them? Wilson critiques this either/or equation and makes a counter argument that “inner-city ghetto residents…overwhelmingly endorse mainstream values regarding work, family and the law.” What’s quite apparent, he says, “is the extraordinary efforts these residents have to make to uphold these values.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: “America Beyond the Color Line”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is one of the most prominent African American intellectuals of his time. Gates gave this speech at the Commonwealth Club of California, in San Francisco, the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum. He was speaking in advance of the premiere of his 2004 PBS project, America Beyond the Color Line. The program was a kind of State of the Union report on black America at the dawn of the 21st century. Gates describes what he learned travelling the country to interview a cross-section of African Americans for the show, and concludes with his own declaration of the most pressing obstacles in the nation’s long struggle for racial equality. Read this speech on the American Radioworks website.
About Frederick Douglass’s Speech
In 1852, Frederick Douglass, one of our nation’s greatest orators and abolitionists, was asked to speak at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In his provocative speech, Douglass said, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?”
Douglass’s speech remains emotionally powerful and thought-provoking more than a century and a half after he gave it. Read a transcript of this speech.
The radio program “Bon Mot” on WGDR at Goddard College hosted a reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech in 2017. Listen to a recording of Douglass’s speech.