“Why Hold a Colored Convention?”

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About this extraordinary speech

In 1883, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “Why Hold a Colored Convention?”

The Colored Conventions were a familiar place for the elderly Douglass. Now 65 years old, he had started going to conventions forty years earlier. Before and after the Civil War, he went to more than a dozen state and national conventions. But he had never quite faced the controversy that faced the call for a national Black convention in 1883.

The 1883 national Colored Convention was heated.

Black and white political leaders debated the call for this convention fiercely. White Republican leaders feared the convention would steer Black votes away from their candidates in upcoming elections. Black leaders disagreed about where the convention should be held. Should it be in Washington DC at the seat of government power? Or should it be held in the South where Black communities desperately needed ways to fight for their civil rights and safety after the fall of Reconstruction? The location of Louisville was a compromise.

Douglass delivered this speech as president of the convention.

Delegates from across the country spent a very long first night of the convention choosing between multiple candidates for president. After much discussion, they elected Douglass around midnight. His duties called for him to run the proceedings, starting with a speech before the large body of delegates, attending politicians, and newspaper reporters and their millions of readers around the country.

His speech explained why Black activism matters.

Douglass wanted to talk about all of the issues facing Black Americans. How to ensure full voting rights. A guarantee of dignity and fair pay for their labors. How to fight against the reinvention of slavery

He refuted the argument that Black political organizing was a thing of the past. He reminded Americans of all kinds that racial inequality remained the law of the land. Finally, he declared: “White men are already in convention against us … the practical construction of American life is a convention against us.” Therefore, Colored Conventions were just as necessary after the Civil War as they had been before emancipation. His arguments are still relevant today.

Watch “Why Hold a Colored Convention?”

Performed by Hassan El-Amin at the University of Delaware (2019)

Read “Why Hold a Colored Convention?”