Premiering on HBO and HBO Max on Feb. 23, a new documentary Frederick Douglass in Five Speeches looks at the life of the most famous abolitionist of the 19th century through five of his key speeches. 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. At that time, lynchings were rampant across the U.S., and though he was in poor health, Douglass felt compelled to speak out on the issue. One Washington, D.C. reporter covering a Jan. 9, 1894, delivery of the speech noted the frail speaker spoke with a “voice unshaken.”
The text is full of visceral descriptions of these acts of violence. “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,” says David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography that formed the basis of the documentary.
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.”
In a Jan. 9, 1894, performance of the speech in D.C., covered by the 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 least back to the massacre in Charleston at the African Methodist Episcopal church in 2015. The outbreaks of violence are struggles constantly over defining, what is this idea of diversity? Whose diversity? Is democracy surviving? These are the subjects of Douglass’s life.”
Frederick Douglass in Five Speeches airs on Feb. 23 at 9:00 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max.
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