Frederick Douglass speaks on immigrant rights

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass.

By Fighting Words Staff

In 1867, the most important figure in the anti-slavery movement in the U.S., Frederick Douglass, gave a speech in Boston about immigrant rights, specifically those people coming from China and Japan.

The son of a both African and Indigenous mother and a rapist enslaver father, Douglass knew that some important abolitionists, such as Thaddeus Stevens, had years before been part of the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” political party. These people found that some immigrants in cities like New York, led by pro-slavery politicians in the pay of banks and companies who made millions off of both the slave trade and the cotton industry, had “persuaded” their workers that freed Black people would threaten their jobs and thus were driven to attack freed Black people and abolitionists.

Only when large numbers of refugees of the 1848 European revolutions emigrated to the U.S. and readily joined the abolition movement did those leaders drop out of the anti-immigrant movement. Some of those refugees were colleagues of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and stayed in communication with them as they helped lead the anti-slavery struggle in England.

Douglass famously connected other struggles to the struggle to end slavery, including the women’s rights and class struggles. Despite his stature and his enormous eloquence, he was unable to prevent the anti-Asian onslaught that would engulf the Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities, and which continued from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act through the World War II U.S. concentration camps that imprisoned thousands of Japanese-ancestry people, including children, even up until today.

The racist attacks on Asian people are increasing today, promoted by fascist politicians like Donald Trump.

Nevertheless, during  this Black History month, Frederick Douglass’s stirring words can fortify those who defend and promote immigrant rights for all, whether from Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East, the Caribbean, or Africa:

“There are such things in the world as human rights,” the vibrant civil rights advocate insisted, “[they] rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible.” Among the human rights of all “is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race but belongs alike to all and to all alike.” He reminded complacent Americans that “It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here.” The right to move, he said, is the “great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.”

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