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William Lloyd Garrison: A Centennial Oration


Editor A. M. E. Church Review

[Note 36: Delivered on the occasion of the Citizen's Celebration of
100th Anniversary of the birth of William Lloyd Garrison, held under the
auspices of the Boston Suffrage League, in Faneuil Hall, Boston, Mass.,
U.S.A., Dec. 11, 1905.]

Friends, Citizens:

We have assembled here to-night to celebrate the one hundredth birth of
William Lloyd Garrison. Not far from this city he was born. Within the
gates of this city, made famous by some of America's most famous men, he
spent more than two-thirds of his long and eventful career, enriching
its history and adding to the glory of its renown. This place, of all
places, is in keeping with the hour. It is most appropriate that we
should meet in Faneuil Hall, the cradle of American liberty, a spot
hallowed and made sacred by the statesmen, soldiers, orators, scholars,
and reformers who have given expression to burning truths and found a
hearing within these walls. Of all people it is most fitting that the
Negro Americans of Boston should be the ones to take the lead in
demonstrating to their fellow-citizens, and to the world, that his high
character is cherished with affection, and the priceless value of his
unselfish labors in their behalf shall forever be guarded as a sacred

Only succeeding generations and centuries can tell the carrying power of
a man's life. Some men, whose contemporaries thought their title to
enduring fame secure, have not been judged worthy in a later time to
have their names recorded among the makers of history. Some men are
noted, some are distinguished, some are famous,--only a few are great.

The men whose deeds are born to live in history do not appear more than
once or twice in a century. Of the millions of men who toil and strive,
the number is not large whose perceptible influence reaches beyond the
generation in which they lived. It does not take long to call the roll
of honor of any generation, and when this roll is put to the test of the
unprejudiced scrutiny of a century, only a very small and select company
have sufficient carrying power to reach into a second century. When the
roll of the centuries is called, we may mention almost in a single
breath the names which belong to the ages. Abraham and Moses stand out
clearly against the horizon of thirty centuries. St. Paul, from his
Roman prison, in the days of the Caesars, is still an articulate and
authoritative voice; Savonarola, rising from the ashes of his
funeral-pyre in the streets of Florence, still pleads for civic
righteousness; the sound of Martin Luther's hammer nailing his thesis to
the door of his Wittenberg church continues to echo around the world;
the battle-cry of Cromwell's Ironsides shouting, "The Lord of Hosts!"
still causes the tyrant and the despot to tremble upon their thrones;
out of the fire and blood of the French Revolution, "Liberty and
Equality" survive; Abraham Lincoln comes from the backwoods of Kentucky,
and the prairies of Illinois, to receive the approval of all succeeding
generations of mankind for his Proclamation of Emancipation; John Brown
was hung at Harper's Ferry that his soul might go marching on in the
tread of every Northern regiment that fought for the "Union forever;"
William Lloyd Garrison, mobbed in the streets of Boston for pleading the
cause of the slave, lived to see freedom triumph, and to-night, a
century after his birth, his name is cherished, not only in America, but
around the world, wherever men aspire to individual liberty and personal

William Lloyd Garrison was in earnest. He neither temporized nor
compromised with the enemies of human freedom. He gave up all those
comforts, honors, and rewards which his unusual talents would easily
have won for him in behalf of the cause of freedom which he espoused. He
stood for righteousness with all the rugged strength of a prophet. Like
some Elijah of the Gilead forests, he pleaded with this nation to turn
away from the false gods it had enshrined upon the altars of human
liberty. Like some John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, he called
upon this nation to repent of its sin of human slavery, and to bring
forth the fruits of its repentance in immediate emancipation.

William Lloyd Garrison was born in Newburyport, Mass., Dec. 10, 1805. He
came of very poor and obscure parentage. His father, who was a seafaring
man, early abandoned the family for causes supposed to relate to his
intemperance. The whole career of Garrison was a struggle against
poverty. His educational advantages were limited. He became a printer's
apprentice when quite a lad, and learned the printing trade. When he
launched his paper, The Liberator, which was to deal such destructive
blows to slavery, the type was set by his own hands. The motto of The
Liberator was "Our country is the world, our countrymen mankind."

Garrison did not worship the golden calf. His course could not be
changed, nor his opinion influenced by threats of violence or the bribe
of gold. Money could not persuade him to open his mouth against the
truth, or buy his silence from uncompromising denunciation of the wrong.
He put manhood above money, humanity above race, the justice of God
above the justices of the Supreme Court, and conscience above the
Constitution. Because he took his stand upon New Testament righteousness
as taught by Christ, he was regarded as a fanatic in a Christian land.
When he declared that "he determined at every hazard to lift up a
standard of emancipation in the eyes of the nation, within sight of
Bunker Hill and in the birthplace of liberty," he was regarded as a
public enemy, in a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to freedom!

Garrison drew his arguments from the Bible and the Declaration of
Independence, only to be jeered as a wild enthusiast. He would not
retreat a single inch from the straight path of liberty and justice. He
refused to purchase peace at the price of freedom. He would not drift
with the current of the public opinion of his day. His course was
up-stream; his battle against the tide. He undertook to create a right
public sentiment on the question of freedom, a task as great as it was
difficult. Garrison thundered warnings to arouse the public conscience
before the lightnings of his righteous wrath and the shafts of his
invincible logic wounded the defenders of slavery in all the vulnerable
joints of their armor. He declared: "Let Southern oppressors
tremble--let their secret abettors tremble; let their Northern
apologists tremble; let all the enemies of the persecuted blacks
tremble." For such utterances as these his name throughout the nation
became one of obloquy and reproach.

He was not bound to the slave by the ties of race, but by the bond of
common humanity which he considered a stronger tie. In his struggle for
freedom there was no hope of personal gain; he deliberately chose the
pathway of financial loss and poverty. There were set before his eyes no
prospect of honor, no pathways leading to promotion, no voice of popular
approval, save that of his conscience and his God. His friends and
neighbors looked upon him as one who brought a stigma upon the fair name
of the city in which he lived. The business interests regarded him as an
influence which disturbed and injured the relations of commerce and of
trade; the Church opposed him; the press denounced him; the State
regarded him as an enemy of the established order; the North repudiated
him; the South burned him in effigy. Yet, almost single-handed and
alone, Garrison continued to fight on, declaring that "his reliance for
the deliverance of the oppressed universally is upon the nature of man,
the inherent wrongfulness of oppression, the power of truth, and the
omnipotence of God." After the greatest civil war that ever immersed a
nation in a baptism of blood and tears, Garrison, unlike most reformers,
lived to see the triumph of the cause for which he fought and every
slave not only acknowledged as a free man, but clothed with the dignity
and powers of American citizenship. William Lloyd Garrison has passed
from us, but the monumental character of his work and the influence of
his life shall never perish. While there are wrongs to be righted,
despots to be attacked, oppressors to be overthrown, peace to find and
advocate, and freedom a voice, the name of William Lloyd Garrison will

Those who would honor Garrison and perpetuate his memory and his fame
must meet the problems that confront them with the same courage and in
the same uncompromising spirit that Garrison met the burning questions
of the day. Those who would honor Garrison in one breath, while
compromising our manhood and advocating the surrender of our political
rights in another, not only dishonor his memory, not only trample the
flag of our country with violent and unholy feet, but they spit upon the
grave which holds the sacred dust of this chiefest of the apostles of

The status of the Negro in this country was not settled by emancipation;
the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which it was confidently
believed would clothe him forever with political influence and power, is
more bitterly opposed to-day than it was a quarter of a century ago.
The place which the Negro is to occupy is still a vital and burning
question. The newspaper press and magazines are full of it; literature
veils its discussion of the theme under the guise of romance; political
campaigns are waged with this question as a paramount issue; it is
written into the national platform of great political parties; it tinges
legislation; it has invaded the domain of dramatic art, until to-day, it
is enacted upon the stage; philanthropy, scholarship, and religion are,
each from their point of view, more industriously engaged in its
solution than they have been in any previous generation. If the life and
labors of Garrison, and the illustrious men and women who stood with
him, have a message for the present, we should seek to interpret its
meaning and lay the lesson to heart.

The scenes have shifted, but the stage is the same; the leading
characters have not changed. We still have with us powerful influences
trying to keep the Negro down by unjust and humiliating legislation and
degrading treatment; while on the other hand, the Negro and his friends
are still contending for the same privileges and opportunities that are
freely accorded to other citizens whose skins do not happen to be black.
We, of this nation, are slow to learn the lessons taught by history; the
passions which feed on prejudice and tyranny can neither be mollified
nor checked by subjection, surrender, or compromise. Self-appointed
representatives of the Negro, his enemies and his would-be friends, are
pointing to many diverse paths, each claiming that the one they have
marked for his feet is the proper one in which he should walk. There is
but one direction in which the Negro should steadfastly look and but one
path, in which he should firmly plant his feet--that is, toward the
realization of complete manhood and equality, and the full justice that
belongs to an American citizen clothed with all of his constitutional

This is a crucial hour for the Negro American; men are seeking to-day to
fix his industrial, political, and social status under freedom as
completely as they did under slavery. As this nation continued unstable,
so long as it rested upon the foundation-stones of slavery so will it
remain insecure as long as one-eighth of its citizens can be openly
shorn of political power, while confessedly they are denied "life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We have no animosity against the
South or against Southern people. We would see the wounds left by the
War of the Rebellion healed; but we would have them healed so
effectually that they could not be trodden upon and made to bleed afresh
by inhuman barbarities and unjust legislation; we would have the wounds
of this nation bound up by the hands of those who are friendly to the
patient, so that they might not remain a political running sore. We
would have the bitter memories of the war effaced, but they cannot fade
while the spirit of slavery walks before the nation in a new guise. We,
too, would have a reunited country; but we would have the re-union to
include not only white men North and South, but a union so endearing,
because so just, as to embrace all of our fellow-countrymen, regardless
of section or of race.

* * * * *

It is not a man's right, it is his duty to support and defend his family
and his home; he should therefore resist any influence exerted to
prevent him from maintaining his dependants in comfort; while he should
oppose with his life the invader or despoiler of his home. God had
created man with a mind capable of infinite development and growth; it
is not, therefore, a man's right, it is his duty to improve his mind and
to educate his children; he should not, therefore, submit to conditions
which would compel them to grow up in ignorance. Man belongs to society;
it is his duty to make his personal contribution of the best that is
within him to the common good; he can do this only as he is given
opportunity to freely associate with his fellow-man. He should,
therefore, seek to overthrow the artificial social barriers which would
intervene to separate him from realizing the highest and best there are
within him by freedom of association. It is a man's duty to be loyal to
his country and his flag, but when his country becomes a land of
oppression and his flag an emblem of injustice and wrong, it becomes as
much his duty to attack the enemies within the nation as to resist the
foreign invader. Tyrants and tyranny everywhere should be attacked and

This is a period of transition in the relations of the Negro to this
nation. The question which America is trying to answer, and which is
must soon definitely settle, is this: What kind of Negroes do the
American people want? That they must have the Negro in some relation
is no longer a question of serious debate. The Negro is here 10,000,000
strong, and, for weal or woe, he is here to stay--he is here to remain
forever. In the government he is a political factor; in education and in
wealth he is leaping forward with giant strides; he counts his taxable
property by the millions, his educated men and women by the scores of
thousands; in the South he is the backbone of industry; in every phase
of American life his presence may be noted; he is also as thoroughly
imbued with American principles and ideals as any class of people
beneath our flag. When Garrison started his fight for freedom, it was
the prevailing sentiment that the Negro could have no place in this
country save that of a slave, but he has proven himself to be more
valuable as a free man than as a slave. What kind of Negroes do the
American people want? Do they want a voteless Negro in a Republic
founded upon universal suffrage? Do they want a Negro who shall not be
permitted to participate in the government which he must support with
his treasure and defend with his blood? Do they want a Negro who shall
consent to be set apart as forming a distinct industrial class,
permitted to rise no higher than the level of serfs or peasants? Do they
want a Negro who shall accept an inferior social position, not as a
degradation, but as the just operation of the laws of caste based upon
color? Do they want a Negro who will avoid friction between the races by
consenting to occupy the place to which white men may choose to assign
him? What kind of a Negro do the American people want? Do they want a
Negro who will accept the doctrine, that however high he may rise in the
scale of character, wealth, and education, he may never hope to
associate as an equal with white men? Do white men believe that
10,000,000 blacks, after having imbibed the spirit of American
institutions, and having exercised the rights of free men for more than
a generation, will ever accept a place of permanent inferiority in the
Republic? Taught by the Declaration of Independence, sustained by the
Constitution of the United States, enlightened by the education of our
schools, this nation can no more resist the advancing tread of the hosts
of the oncoming blacks than it can bind the stars or halt the resistless
motion of the tide.

The answer which the American people may give to the question proposed
cannot be final. There is another question of greater importance which
must be answered by the Negro, and by the Negro alone: What kind of an
American does the Negro intend to be? The answer to this question he
must seek and find in every field of human activity and endeavor. First,
he must answer it by negation. He does not intend to be an alien in the
land of his birth, nor an outcast in the home of his fathers. He will
not consent to his elimination as a political factor; he will refuse to
camp forever on the borders of the industrial world; as an American he
will consider that his destiny is united by indissoluble bonds with the
destiny of America forever; he will strive less to be a great Negro in
this Republic and more to be an influential and useful American. As
intelligence is one of the chief safeguards of the Republic, he will
educate his children. Knowing that a people cannot perish whose morals
are above reproach, he will ally himself on the side of the forces of
righteousness; having been the object of injustice and wrong, he will be
the foe of anarchy and the advocate of the supremacy of law. As an
American citizen, he will allow no man to protest his title, either at
home or abroad. He will insist more and more, not only upon voting, but
upon being voted for, to occupy any position within the gift of the
nation. As an American whose title to citizenship is without a blemish
or flaw, he will resist without compromise every law upon the
statute-books which is aimed at his degradation as a human being and
humiliation as a citizen. He will be no less ambitious and aspiring than
his fellow-countrymen; he will assert himself, not as a Negro, but as a
man; he will beat no retreat in the face of his enemies and opposers;
his gifted sons and daughters, children of genius who may be born to
him, will make their contribution to the progress of humanity on these
shores, accepting nothing but the honors and rewards that belong to
merit. What kind of an American does the Negro intend to be? He intends
to be an American who will never mar the image of God, reproach the
dignity of his manhood, or tarnish the fair title of his citizenship, by
apologizing to men or angels for associating as an equal, with some
other American who does not happen to be black. He will place the love
of country above the love of race; he will consider no task too
difficult, no sacrifice too great, in his effort to emancipate his
country from the un-Christlike feelings of race hatred and the American
bondage of prejudice. There is nothing that injustice so much respects,
that Americans so much admire, and the world so much applauds, as a man
who stands erect like a man, has the courage to speak in the tones of a
man, and to fearlessly act a man's part.

There are two views of the Negro question now at last clearly defined.
One is that the Negro should stoop to conquer; that he should accept in
silence the denial of his political rights; that he should not brave the
displeasure of white men by protesting when he is segregated in
humiliating ways upon the public carriers and in places of public
entertainment; that he may educate his children, buy land, and save
money, but he must not insist upon his children taking their place in
the body politic to which their character and intelligence entitle them;
he must not insist on ruling the land which he owns or farms; he must
have no voice as to how the money he has accumulated is to be expended
through taxation and the various forms of public improvement. There are
others who believe that the Negro owes this nation no apology for his
presence in the United States; that, being black, he is still no less a
man; that he should not yield one syllable of his title to American
citizenship; that he should refuse to be assigned to an inferior plane
by his fellow-countrymen; though foes conspire against him and powerful
friends desert him, he should refuse to abdicate his sovereignty as a
citizen, and to lay down his honor as a man.

If Americans become surfeited with wealth, haughty with the boasting
pride of race superiority, morally corrupt in the high places of honor
and of trust, enervated through the pursuit of pleasure, or the
political bondmen of some strong man plotting to seize the reins of
power, the Negro American will continue his steadfast devotion to the
flag, and the unyielding assertion of his constitutional rights, that
"this government of the people, for the people, and by the people, may
not perish from the earth."

It is so marvelous as to be like a miracle of God, to behold the
transformation that has taken place in the position of the Negro in this
land since William Lloyd Garrison first saw the light a century ago.
When the Negro had no voice, Garrison pleaded his cause; to-night the
descendants of the slave stand in Faneuil Hall, while from ocean to
ocean every foot of American soil is dedicated to freedom. The Negro
American has found his voice; he is able to speak for himself; he stands
upon this famous platform here and thinks it no presumption to declare
that he seeks nothing more, and will be satisfied with nothing less than
the full measure of American citizenship!

I feel inspired to-night. The spirits of the champions of freedom hover
near. High above the stars, Lincoln and Garrison, Sumner and Phillips,
Douglass and Lovejoy, look down to behold their prayers answered, their
labors rewarded, and their prophecies fulfilled. They were patriots; the
true saviors of a nation that esteemed them not. They have left us a
priceless heritage. Is there to be found among us now one who would so
dishonor the memory of these sainted dead; one so lost to love of
country and loyalty to his race, as to offer to sell our birthright for
a mess of pottage? When we were slaves, Garrison labored to make us
free; when our manhood was denied, he proclaimed it. Shall we in the day
of freedom be less loyal to our country and true to ourselves than were
the friends who stood for us in our night of woe? Many victories have
been won for us; there are still greater victories we must win for
ourselves. The proclamation of freedom and the bestowal of citizenship
were not the ultimate goal we started out to reach, they were but the
beginnings of progress. We, of this generation, must so act our part
that, a century hence, our children and our children's children may
honor our memory and be inspired to press on as they receive from us
untarnished the banner of freedom, of manhood, and of equality among

The Negro went aboard the ship of state when she was first launched upon
the uncertain waters of our national existence. He booked as through
passenger until she should reach "the utmost sea-mark of her farthest
sail." When those in command treated him with injustice and brutality,
he did not mutiny or rebel; when placed before the mast as a lookout, he
did not fall asleep at his post. He has helped to keep her from being
wrecked upon the rocks of treachery; he has imperiled his life by
standing manfully to his task while she outrode the fury of a
threatening sea; when the pirate-craft of rebellion bore down upon her
and sought to place the black flag of disunion at her masthead, he was
one of the first to respond when the captain called all hands up on
deck. If the enemies of liberty should ever again attempt to wreck our
ship of state, the Negro American will stand by the guns; he will not
desert her when she is sinking, but with the principles of the
Declaration of Independence nailed to the masthead, with the flag
afloat, he would prefer rather to perish with her than to be numbered
among those who deserted her when assailed by an overwhelming foe. If
she weathers the storms that beat upon her, outsails the enemies that
pursue her, avoids the rocks that threaten her, and anchors at last in
the port of her desired haven, black Americans and white Americans,
locked together in brotherly embrace, will pledge each other to remain
aboard forever on terms of equality, because they shall have learned by
experience that neither one of them can be saved, except they thus abide
in the ship.

For the present our strivings are not in vain. The injustice that leans
upon the arm of oppression for support must fall; truth perverted or
suppressed gains in momentum while it waits; generations may perish, but
humanity will survive; out of the present conflict of opinion and the
differences of race and color that divide, once the tides of immigration
have ceased to flow to our shores, this nation will evolve a people who
shall be one in purpose, one in spirit, one in destiny--a composite
American by the co-mingling of blood.

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