New documentary premiering on HBO Max (February 23), and HBO Max (February 23). Frederick Douglass, Five Speeches Through five key speeches, we examine the life and times of the greatest abolitionist in the 19th century. His last major speech “Lessons of the Hour,” in which he spoke out against lynching, is particularly timely today—performed in the above clip by actor Jeffrey Wright.
Douglass delivered “Lessons of the Hour”—and versions of it under different names—throughout 1894, the last year of his life, in Washington D.C. and throughout the Midwest. He had first conceived of the speech at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago with prominent anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells. Douglass was called to the microphone because he felt the need to raise the matter. One Washington, D.C. reporter covering a Jan. 9, 1894, delivery of the speech noted the frail speaker spoke with a “voice unshaken.”
Learn more How the South Memorializes—and Forgets—Its History of Lynching
These acts of violence are described in detail throughout the text. “It’s commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas will gloat over and prey upon dead bodies,” Douglass said. “But the southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead.”
Douglass described lynching as a way to intimidate voters, stating that men who carried out these heinous acts were also “men who justify themselves in cheating the Negro out of his constitutional right to vote.”
He outlined what he sees as “excuses” for lynching, primarily the fear that Black men would rape white women if they were not controlled. That same fear fueled white supremacists’ justification of slavery as necessary to avoid “insurrection, he said, while fears of “negro supremacy” also fueled violence and discrimination of freed Blacks after emancipation following the Civil War.
“He takes his audience through this kind of three-part history of the different degrees of control, oppression and terror to exercise dominion over Black people at all these stages—slavery, freedom, and now in this world of the beginnings of the Jim Crow era,”David Blight is the author of Frederick Douglass, Prophet of FreedomThe basis for the documentary was the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographical sketch of.
Learn more The Speech That Launched Frederick Douglass’s Life as an Abolitionist
At the speech’s core, Douglass called on his audiences to look back to principles of equality outlined in America’s founding to forge the “moral sense of a nation.”
Recall the glorious and sublime truths it spoke to the world when it was born. It foretold the birth of a nation founded on human Brotherhood, the self-evident truths of equality and liberty. Use these glorious and sublime truths[es]Take stock of the facts. Put aside your prejudices, stop thinking that one class should rule the other, and recognize that the rights the most humble citizens are just as important as those of the top. Your problem will then be solved.
A Jan. 9, 1894, speech performance in D.C. Evening Star, the audience responded enthusiastically to Douglass’s words; he spoke “as if to invoke heaven to bear witness and the echoes of his words were drowned in a tumultuous storm of applause,” the Star wrote.
Though titled “Lessons of the Hour” for 1894, the speech can also provide lessons for today.
“It’s got a lot to say about why people resort to violence when they feel threatened,” says Blight. “It’s an analysis of a big lie, and how a big lie take hold on the culture…We are in some kind of extended racial reckoning, not just from the summer of 2020 and [the murder of]George Floyd. But at most, back to 2015’s Charleston massacre at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Conflicts over definition of what diversity is are the constant causes of violent outbreaks. Which diversity is it? Is democracy surviving? These are the subjects of Douglass’s life.”
Frederick Douglass, Five Speeches Airs February 23rd at 9:00 PM on HBO Max and HBO.