By Marissa Johnson
Henry Highland Garnet spoke in 1843 to a wildly supportive audience at the Convention in Buffalo. Despite his glowing reception, however, the Convention refused to adopt his way of thinking because his viewpoint was too radical. In fact, John Brown, the leader of the Harper’s Ferry insurrection, would publish and distribute this speech to support his own cause to incite slave uprisings.
Garnet, like many great orators, opens his speech more calmly and with vivid, impassioned imagery designed to get his audience slowly nodding along with his message. He begins with the sentiment “nor can we be free while you are enslaved. We, therefore, write to you as being bound with you.”
Garnet then goes on to mention that many slaves are related to whites through the lust of white slave masters and points to the fact that white men often take unwilling young black girls as their concubines. This is pretty radical to admit. People obviously knew this was going on, but it was just one of those things that one did not mention in polite society, even among abolitionists. This was pretty scandalous.
Next, Garnet lambasts so-called Christians for their “cruelty,” “villainy,” “robbery,” “avarice and lust.” He calls slavery “evil.” As the speech continues, he begins to use all capital letters and makes more liberal use of the exclamation point, making his speech come to a crescendo like great orators such as Martin Luther King, Jr. have mastered. Henry Garnet points out the hypocrisy of the Liberty or Death speech at a time when slavery still existed and would continue to exist.
What Garnet would say next, however, is what probably made Convention attendees leery of openly endorsing him. He blamed the slaves for continuing to submit to their masters. “Such degradation…is sinful in the extreme for you to make voluntary submission.” His argument is that their white oppressors are heathens and to obey heathens is against God’s commandments. He tells his black audience that they are citizens and should have all of the rights as white men. His call to action and to die as martyrs to end slavery was frightening to contemporary audiences.
Garnet’s message was passionate, and, to a degree, made sense. However, his call for violence and for resistance was what made others reluctant to truly listen to him. Perhaps, he could have gone further with a nonviolent approach, but it remains to be seen if he would have a place in history had he not taken the contrary approach.