Would Douglass be a supportive member of Malcolm X’s audience?

As we explored the works of several African American authors and attempted to understand their quest for equality and citizenship we also briefly touched on the idea of violence as an extension of Shklar’s definition of citizenship. While our focus on Douglass was primarily as an extension or challenge to Shklar and her belief that voting and earning are essential characteristics of citizenship, we skimmed over the concept of violence as an evening of the playing field between citizens and “non-citizens.” In addition to considering the use of violence as an additional element of citizenship we could investigate the idea of violence as a way to achieve citizenship and whether or not Douglass would be a laudatory member of Malcolm X’s audience.

Although Douglass does not necessarily promote violence as an instrument in the quest for equality, there are certain moments in his narrative in which he implies that it is necessary. There are two situations in which Douglass is engaged in violence and he is motivated by the idea of freedom, upholding his dignity and self-protection. The result? He appears to legitimize himself as a person and reflect integrity. Violence becomes justified in the division of self-defense and more over seems to make equal the “non-citizen” against the “citizen.” In the moments where Douglass holds Mr. Covey by the throat or fights off the shipbuilders, he has become their equal. In my discussion section we questioned whether or not the ability to act violently or to fight back was an equalizer and an extension of Shklar’s definition of citizenship.

In comparing the general theories of Douglass and Malcolm X, there is an agreement that the black man should be left alone. Douglass writes in his 1865 speech, “What the Black Man Wants,”

“’What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us…if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone…your interference is doing him a positive injury.”

This is ultimately Malcolm’s stance. The idea of Black Nationalism whether it is political, economic and social is self-reliance on solely African Americans.

“If it doesn’t take senators and congressmen and presidential proclamations to give freedom to the white man, it is not necessary for legislation or proclamation or Supreme Court decisions to give freedom to the black man.”

The American government should not have to dictate the necessary steps to cultivate a society in which blacks and whites co-exist but rather should let it happen naturally.

It is apparent that Douglass’ use of violence in smaller situations implies that it is not only a quality of Shklar’s definition of citizenship but that it is a contributing factor in the process of gaining equality and citizenship. It helps validates one’s existence and this concept could not be more prevalent than in Malcolm’s speech. Malcolm rejects the conventional theories as to how to gain equality by espousing his notion of “the ballot or the bullet.” He too speaks of violence as an equalizer in the context of guerilla warfare.

“Nowhere in the world does the white man win in guerilla warfare.”

According to Malcolm, white men hide behind their advanced weaponry and have a false sense of superiority. It is raw and intrinsic combat, a reflection of natural ability and strength and shows the genuine equality of all soldiers despite racial differences. He states that if equality is not achieved that his insatiable appetite for equality will be fulfilled through violent methods.

“We want to hear new ideas and new solutions and new answers. And at that time, if we see fit then to form a black nationalist party we’ll form a black nationalist party. If it’s necessary to form a black nationalist army, we’ll form a black nationalist army. It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death.” (“The Ballot or the Bullet”)

So I must pose a question. Malcolm X blatantly proposes the use of violence as a means to gaining equality while Frederick Douglass’ narrative exposes several isolated occurrences of violence as a way of validating his existence and his self-worth. In Douglass’ speech however, he is really asking for the “immediate, unconditional, and universal enfranchisement of the black man, in every State in the Union” and not be disturbed. His use of violence as a means to gaining equality is implicit. Would he applaud Malcolm X’s speech were he in the crowd and would Malcolm X applaud Douglass’ speech? While both agree on the fundamental process of gaining equality by being undisturbed, their speeches send different messages. If Douglass were to disagree with the premise of “The Ballot or the Bullet” it would seem slightly hypocritical given his use of violence in the past.  What are your thoughts?

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1 Response to Would Douglass be a supportive member of Malcolm X’s audience?

  1. drullis says:

    I also think that Douglass and Malcolm X seem to take a similar route in establishing legitimacy or a sense of equality. They do both seem to agree that through means of violence equality can be established. Douglass shows in his writings that through violence he established equality with those he encountered. He provided two examples where violence gave him more legitimacy to those people. Although not always intentional, Douglass does seem to promote violence as a viable route to gaining some equality. Malcolm X would surely agree with Douglass that violence is a necessary procedure to gain equality. Malcolm X was an even greater promoter of violence. It is interesting that you tie both Malcolm X and Douglass together not just through their violent ways, but also how they both seem to want the same goal for African Americans. They both want for African Americans to be left alone. They share very similar views on how violence is a practical solution to gain independence from whites and equality within society. I think both parties would applaud at each other’s speeches since they do seem to preach much of the same message, although I do not think that Douglass would be as pro-violence as Malcolm X. I think Douglass would agree that violence could be deemed necessary, but I do not think he would go as far as Malcolm X seems to promote violence.

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