Dr. John Rock
Source: Harper’s Weekly, February 25, 1865; from Wikipedia
Dr. John Rock knew a war was coming. And he had no doubt: his people were ready to strike a blow.
John Rock was an American renaissance man. Born in 1825 to free black parents in New Jersey, he would move to Philadelphia and then Boston, becoming a teacher, dentist, doctor, lawyer, abolitionist, and orator along the way. Among his many accomplishments: he was the first black attorney allowed to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. To both blacks and whites, he was surely seen as a man of high standing.
On March 5, 1858, Dr. Rock delivered a speech in Boston as part of the annual Crispus Attucks Day observance organized by Boston’s black abolitionists in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. That decision infamously stated that the black race was “so far inferior they… had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” But John Rock felt inferior to no man.
Rock shared the platform that day with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker, leading figures of the American abolitionist movement. Many abolitionists eschewed violence as a means of challenging slavery, and avoided references to violence in their writing and speeches. But the language of the Dred Scott decision amounted to fighting words, and Rock would have his say.
Rock’s speech is notable for its prediction of a civil war, and the prominent role that blacks would play in it; its expression of black pride; its call for black self-improvement; and its subtle or overt wit and humor. But mainly, it rails against the idea that the negro lacked the courage and will to seek his own freedom; this was a degradation that Rock could not tolerate. His talk appears below, with a minor abridgment. The whole speech is here.
Ladies and Gentlemen: You will not expect a lengthened speech from me tonight. My health is too poor to allow me to indulge much in speechmaking. But I have not been able to resist the temptation to unite with you in this demonstration of respect for some of my noble but misguided ancestors.
White Americans have taken great pains to try to prove that we are cowards. We are often insulted with the assertion, that if we had had the courage of the Indians or the white man, we would never have submitted to be slaves. I ask if Indians and white men have never been slaves? The white man tested the Indian’s courage here when he had his organized armies, his battlegrounds, his places of retreat, with everything to hope for and everything to lose.
The position of the African slave has been very different. Seized a prisoner of war, unarmed, bound hand and foot, and conveyed to a distant country among what to him were worse than cannibals; brutally beaten, halfstarved, closely watched by armed men, with no means of knowing their own strength or the strength of their enemies, with no weapons, and without a probability of success. But if the white man will take the trouble to fight the black man in Africa or in Hayti, and fight him as fair as the black man will fight him there—if the black man does not come off victor, I am deceived in his prowess. But, take a man, armed or unarmed, from his home, his country, or his friends, and place him among savages, and who is he that would not make good his retreat? “Discretion is the better part of valor”… but for a man to resist where he knows it will destroy him, shows more fool-hardiness than courage.
There have been many Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Americans enslaved in Africa, but I have never heard that they successfully resisted any government. They always resort to running indispensables. The courage of the Anglo-Saxon is best illustrated in his treatment of the negro. A score or two of them can pounce upon a poor negro, tie and beat him, and then call him a coward because he submits. Many of their most brilliant victories have been achieved in the same manner.
Our true and tried friend, Rev. Theodore Parker said, in his speech at the State House, a few weeks since, that “the stroke of the axe would have settled the question long ago, but the black man would not strike.” Mr. Parker makes a very low estimate of the courage of his race, if he means that one, two or three millions of those ignorant and cowardly black slaves could, without means, have brought to their knees five, ten, or twenty millions of intelligent brave white men, backed up by a rich oligarchy. But I know of no one who is more familiar with the true character of the Anglo-Saxon race than Mr. Parker. I will not dispute this point with him, but I will thank him or any one else to tell us how it could have been done. His remark calls to my mind the day which is to come, when one shall chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight.
But when he says that “the black man would not strike,” I am prepared to say that he does us great injustice. The black man is not a coward. The history of the bloody struggles for freedom in Hayti, in which the blacks whipped the French and the English, and gained their independence, in spite of the perfidy of that villainous First Consul, will be a lasting refutation of the malicious aspersions of our enemies.