Frederick Douglass Project Writings: Give Us the Freedom Intended For Us

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The New National Era, December 5, 1872

We are often cautioned against demanding too much for the colored people of this country. This cautioning is invariably accompanied with a full narration of what has already been done for our people, and we are further exhorted to remember that within the past decade we were slaves without any rights entitled to respect, and that in this short space of time we have been freed and transformed into American citizens, with the right to exercise the elective franchise extended to us by amendment to the National Constitution. Having been the recipients of these very valuable gifts, it is asserted by some who have taken an active part in the giving, that we should be satisfied at least long enough to allow the nation to take breath after its strenuous exertions in the accomplishment of the results so beneficial to us. To such persons the fact that we have been oppressed, outraged, and wronged for more than two centuries seems to be no argument why the nation should hasten to undo the wrong it has sanctioned against us, now that if fully admits the evil perpetrated upon us.

The elective franchise without protection in its exercise amounts to almost nothing in the hands of a minority with a vast majority determined that no exercise of it shall be made by the minority. Freedom from the auction block and from legal claim as property is of no benefit to the colored man without the means of protecting his rights. The black man is not a free American citizen in the sense that a white man is a free American citizen; he cannot protect himself against encroachments upon the rights and privileges already allowed him in a court of justice without an impartial jury. If accused of crime, he is tried by men who have a bias against him by reason of his race, color, or previous condition of servitude. If he attempts to send his children to the nearest public school where a free white American citizen, who pays no more taxes, can have the privilege without question, he is driven away and has no redress at law. If, after purchasing tickets for a ride in a first-class railway carriage, a colored person is hustled out into a smoking car, he or she has no redress at law because a custom prevails which allows injustice in this respect to colored persons.

We claim that the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution of the United States were intended to give full freedom to every person without regard to race or color in the United States; and, in order that this intention should be carried out and acted upon, power for that purpose was given by conferring upon Congress the right to enforce the amendments by appropriate legislation. It cannot be denied that the violent interference with the black man to prevent him from exercising the elective franchise in accordance with his own views is an abridgement of his freedom as is also the refusal of a trial by a jury of his peers; nor can it be denied that the forcing of colored men to pay for what they do not get by railroad corporations or the refusal to allow the same accommodation to them as to other citizens of the United States, is an invidious discrimination amounting to an abridgement of citizenship rights...

We cannot be asking too much when we ask this Congress to carry out the intention of this Nation as expressed in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We are not free. We cannot be free without the appropriate legislation provided for in the above amendments. We say to those who think we are demanding too much that it is idle to point us to the amendments and ask us to be satisfied with them and wait until the nation is educated up to giving us something more. The amendments are excellent but they need to be enforced. The result intended to be reached by the nation has not been reached. Congress has neglected to do its full duty. The people one month ago reiterated in thunder tones their demand "that complete liberty and exact equality in the enjoyment of all civil, political, and public rights should be established and effectually maintained throughout the Union by efficient and appropriate State and Federal legislation." We join in this demand those who think we are asking too much to the contrary notwithstanding.

The people on the 5th of November last ratified the following:

"The recent amendments to the national Constitution should be cordially sustained because they are right, not merely tolerated because they are law, and should be carried out according to their spirit by appropriate legislation." The Liberal Democratic platform took similar ground as follows, and all the voters in the country voted for similar principles: "We recognize the equality of all men before the law and hold that it is the duty of Government in its dealings with the people to mete out equal and exact justice to all of whatever nativity, race, color or persuasion religious or political. We pledge ourselves to maintain the Union of these States, emancipation and enfranchisement and to oppose any reopening of the questions settled by the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution." In view of this can a Republican Congress longer refuse to enact into law such a bill as Senator Sumner brought forward in the last session of Congress and which is by far the best measure yet proposed for establishing "complete liberty and exact equality in the enjoyinent of all civil, political, and public rights."