Written: In 1942.
Source: Negroes and the National War Effort, An Address by Frederick Douglass (Workers Library Publishers, New York City, 1942), pages 3-6.
Transcribed: for marxists.org by Juan Fajardo, November 2023.
These are trying days for our nation. They are even more trying than those in the national crisis of 1860, when the threat to the nation’s existence demanded just as today the integration and utilization of Negroes to the fullest in the struggle to preserve the Union. Frederick Douglass’ leadership in clarifying the issues that resulted in the raising of Negro troops and their integration into the Union armies is graphically illustrated in the following speech made by that great Negro Abolitionist in Philadelphia, at the National Hall, on July 6, 1863.
Again the Negro people dare not fail to appreciate their stake and their role in helping to win the war today against the Axis powers, without which the struggle for the rights of the Negro people will be set back for generations. Frederick Douglass, one of the outstanding figures of the Civil War period, comes forward now to challenge those who declare “this is not the colored man’s war” and who would minimize the stake of the Negro people in this titanic global conflict. Douglass has not fully come into his own even among the most politically advanced white and Negro masses in the United States. Too little has been made known about him by the official historians. Those who have written the history of our country in the decades since the Civil War have either deliberately, or out of an ignorance nurtured by prejudice, omitted Douglass’ contribution to our nation. Falsification by silence has to a considerable extent concealed the real issues of that period from the masses.
In the Civil War the nation was faced with dissolution. The Union had to be saved or liberty would have been lost for all. All true patriots rallied against those who aimed to dismember our country and who, if they had been successful in defeating the Union, would have imposed the system of human slavery over the entire nation and spread it throughout Central and South America.
Labor exercised an important role in determining the course of the Civil War. It supported Lincoln and stood solidly for the abolition of slavery. Of strategic importance also was the active participation of Negro troops in helping determine the successful outcome of the war. No one understood this more clearly than Frederick Douglass. In his speech Douglass makes devastating argument against wavering and hesitation in regard to supporting the war, by his brilliant analysis of the two forces that were struggling for mastery in the military drama of the Civil War. Although vacillation and weakness on the slavery question were found in high places in the government, Douglass nevertheless admonished colored men to join the Union Army and fight for freedom and liberty. He declared that the logic of events should convince all Negroes that their basic interests demanded their participation as fighters in the ranks of the Union Army. When Confederate cannon shattered Fort Sumter at Charleston -the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War- Douglass at once “saw the end of slavery” for his people. He threw himself into mobilizing Negro troops for the Union Army. He fought the Copperheads.
In the crisis today the nation is fighting for its existence against new would-be enslavers of the whole of humanity, the Nazi-fascist Axis -the most fiendish imperialists in all history. We have the McClellans, pro-Hitlerites and appeasers of today, black and white. We have our Lindberghs, Hamiton Fishes and Coughlins; we have the Ku Klux Klan and our Cliveden Set, all of whom constitute the most serious obstacle to the war against Hitler and are a Hitlerite camp of reaction at home. We have a group of Southern poll-tax Congressmen, who, under the guise of supporting the government’s foreign policy, obstruct every measure necessary for the fullest mobilization of our human and material resources to destroy the fascist Axis.
Shameless policies of “Aryan superiority” such as blood segregation, can only contribute to undermining the unity of the nation. There is not a single American patriot who does not glory in the sacrifices that Negro Americans have made in giving the last drop of their blood to sustain this nation since its birth until the present moment. We must fight against the appeasers in the spirit which Douglass indicated, of unity of white and black.
A matter of the gravest concern to all Americans anxious for the destruction of everything that Hitlerism stands for is the widespread discrimination against Negro American in the armed forces and in the industries, which militates against their fullest mobilization for the war effort. All Americans -Negroes and whites- can never be satisfied until this blot is erased from American life. In the spirit and tradition of Frederick Douglass, this question is not places as a “condition for support of the war”; rather, it is advanced in the interests of most effectively prosecuting the war. In the course of this war the struggle for democracy and equality must be furthered. Unless all unite effectively to defeat Hitler, white and black will become the chattel slaves of fascism.
The work of Douglass in rallying his people in support of the war in the interests of national unity was made easier by labor’s support of the anti-slavery cause. The leadership of Douglass, as history has proved, was wise and sound.
Labor is immensely stronger today. It is the backbone of the nation. Its task of rallying the Negro people in support of the war against Hitler requires united effort in wiping out discrimination and lynching. This constitutes a basic part of the battle for production. It means helping win the war on the battlefields. It means helping the government rally all the forces of the nation to win the war.
The crisis which faces the nation today requires national unity embracing all classes and peoples to preserve the very national existence of the United States. In developing further its policies for combatting discrimination, the government will help smash the nefarious efforts of the Axis-aiding demagogues and splitters, and will strengthen national unity for dealing the death blow to the fascist Axis.
“Events more mighty than men,” said Douglass, “…have placed us in new relations with the government and the government with us.”
The republication of this speech of Frederick Douglass should serve, not alone to honor him, but to make more clear the tasks we face today and to stimulate us fully to meet them.