The most important speech in African-American history

The late Sen. Charles Sumner, R-MA, donated his heavily-annotated copy of a Memorial Discourse to the Harvard University library.

It is clear that Sumner used the language and logic of Rev. Henry Highland Garnet to fuel the passage of the only three Constitutional Amendments of the 19th century — the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

Sumner was the leader of the Radical Republicans who pushed President Abraham Lincoln first to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and to campaign for the passage of the Constitutional end of slavery.

Historian John William Templeton reads from Sumner’s copy of a Memorial Discourse when he re-enacts the three major speeches by Garnet, a handicapped fugitive slave whose family escaped from slavery in Maryland when he was nine years old.  Garnet then attended one of the seven African Free Schools in New York City.   The leadership of the abolition movement is also a roll of the graduates of those schools.

During four summer institutes in Washington, New York City, Philadelphia and Miami, Templeton leads a distinguished group of scholars and pastors to explore how their use of language and logic was so effective and compelling as to end a lucrative practice which had gone on for more than 250 years.

In Templeton’s view, Garnet’s Memorial Discourse on Feb. 12, 1865 is the most important African-American speech in history, precisely because of its far-reaching impact.   “Rather than President Lincoln congratulating himself for the passage of the 13th Amendment, he sat in the audience on his birthday as Rev. Henry Highland Garnet completely dismantled the moral justifications for slavery and the Confederacy, rolling the dice on the most militant opponent of slavery in the previous 25 years to convince whites to change their attitudes,” notes Templeton. Summer would also push for citizenship and the right to vote in the 14th and 15th Amendments by 1870.

As author of Road to Ratification: How 27 States Tackled the Most Challenging Issue in American History, Templeton uses the contemporary histories of the 19th century written by African-American scholars such as George Washington Williams, Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. DuBois and John Cromwell to tell how each state approved the 13th Amendment between Jan. 31 and Dec. 6, 1865.

He was struck by the lack of scholarship which described the end of slavery from the perspective of African-American writers and speakers, whose eloquence was extraordinary, given their ascent from bondage in a single lifetime.  Their narrative is at odds with the prevailing story of American history, which excludes African-Americans as active participants.  The result is to leave today’s learners disinterested, if not ashamed, when they should rightly be inspired and invigorated.

Road to Ratification  was used in the making of the movie  Gina’s Journey: the search for William Grimes , a Yale University barber who published the first slave narrative in 1825, intentionally avoiding white editing or re-interpretation of what he had faced.  Theologically, Garnet, a Presbyterian minister ordained in 1841, is a prophetic voice because of his two significant speeches before a Memorial Discourse:

  • An Address to Those Enslaved in the United States of America, in Buffalo in 1843
  • A Response to the Committee of Relief for the Anti-Draft Riots in New York City in 1863

Templeton explains that Garnet, unlike the Old Testament prophets, had the opportunity to see his prophecy come to pass.   In 1843, his call to “Let Your Motto Be Resistance, Resistance, Resistance” was so inflammatory that the other delegates to the National Negro Congress declined to support his call for a general strike of slaves and an armed rebellion.   In 1863, more than 1,000 blacks had been slaughtered in the worst civic disobedience in American history when whites rampaged for four days to protest being drafted into the Union Army, several months after the Emancipation Proclamation.  Yet, 18 months later, Garnet had the honor of being the first African-American to speak in the U.S. Capitol, which had been built partially with slave labor, to celebrate the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The current implications of Garnet’s speeches address the debate among African-American scholars about “respectability politics,”–whether it is more important to cater to white sensibilities about race for discussing African-American issues.  Garnet’s no-punches-pulled style in “Let The Monster Perish” is prescient because it underscores the importance of not compromising with evil.   Practically, Garnet was able to co-opt the most revered symbols of white culture to make his case, leaving his opponents no room to debate.

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