The treatment of black Americans and civil rights are huge ongoing topics that began seemingly since the beginning of time. There have been numerous activists over the past several decades through American history fighting for justice and humane treatment. Frederick Douglas did not necessarily begin the civil rights movement; however, he was a major player in the growing demand for freedom and rights. Less than one hundred years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was still fighting for civil rights for black Americans. Both these black Americans faced adversity, yet were raised in two different worlds when considering their treatment. Even with this fact, both gentlemen turned out to be highly notable in American history, and their contributions made a positive impact on civil rights laws.
The eldest of the two, Frederick Douglas, was born in the early 1800’s into slavery. Douglas never knew his father and initially took his mother’s last name, Bailey. Years later, he changed his last name to Douglas, soon after he escaped slavery. When he became about six years of age, Douglass was taken by his grandmother to the house of their master, Aaron Anthony, which was about 12 miles from his original home. However, at his new home, Douglass found that the children there was mostly kin to him; he met older siblings and a few cousins (Burchard 14).
During this time, Douglass learned much about the biased treatment of humans. Even his own treatment varied from person to person. Upon entering his new home, Douglass was treated harshly by the black slave woman who tended the house. She fed Douglass less than the others and scorned him for the slightest incident. Ironically, in the same home, Lucretia Auld, Anthony’s daughter, was gentle with Douglass and helped to nurse him to health when he was sick or injured (Burchard 23). Too, the white mistress of his next home and sister-in-law to Anthony’s daughter, Sophia Auld, was tender and caring with Douglass. She took care of him and taught him to read and spell. Auld seemed to break all the rules when it came to slave treatment; she smiled, allowed eye contact, and stooped to speak with Douglass (Douglass 18).
During the nine months of living with the Auld’s, he found that his mistress was becoming hardened to slave ownership and treatment of a slave. She could seem very loving at times yet very harsh at other times. Here at the Auld house, Douglass was given more than enough food, decent clothing, and certain freedoms. Even though Mr. Auld forbade him to read or write, Douglass would go on errands with his book and trade food to poor white children on the streets in exchange for reading lessons. Although he knew if he were caught, he would be severely punished (Burchard 30).
At the end of this time, Douglass was informed that his previous master, Aaron Anthony, had died. Considering that Anthony was still his owner, Douglass had to be shipped back to the Anthony home and divided up as property. Douglass was grouped together with the other slaves and with the animals. None of them had a say in how they would be divided or to whom they would go. Douglass was included in the portion endowed to Lucretia, Anthony’s daughter and was sent back to the Auld home. Over the next few years, Douglass was leased again to a new family. Here he was brutally beaten and scarred during his first six-month stay. A turning point came when Douglass fought with his new master and brought pain to him (Douglass 42).
Later, marrying a free woman, Douglass was encouraged more than ever to flee from slavery. In 1838, with the help of his wife Anna, Douglass escaped and boarded a train in attempts to reach New York. Once there he found refuge in a man who headed an antislavery organization. Douglass began traveling and speaking; thus, Frederick Douglass became his legal name, whereas previously he was Frederick Bailey. In the following years, Douglass met with other abolitionists, both white and black. He traveled overseas to other countries to speak and fight for civil rights and freedom. He became a prominent antislavery speaker in both America and England. After returning home to America, Douglass spent much time working on his own newspaper, The North Star, fighting to desegregate Rochester public schools and continue his fight for civil rights for blacks and women. Up until his death in 1895, Douglass continued to speak and fight against antislavery and civil rights in both America and England. He died a well-respected man and noted the speaker (Burchard 197).
Similarly, black American Martin Luther King, Jr. spent his adult lift fighting and protesting for civil rights and desegregation. His childhood was not even comparable to that of Frederick Douglass. King was born to an educated mother and father. His father was a college graduate and pastor and his mother taught school. King was raised in the church and began going to school with his mother when he was five. Even though he did not endure life, in the beginning, being a slave, he was still subjected to segregation. King, as a child, witnessed numerous incidences where he and his family were refused service based on their skin color. He had two specific events in this young life which were prominent displays of prejudice. First, when he was only about five years old, the mother of a good friend of his, who was white, stopped the boys from ever playing together because King was black. A second incident occurred when King was about eleven years old. He was out shopping with his mother when a white lady stepped in front of him, accused him of stepping on her foot, smacked him in the face and walked off (Clayton 22).
King, being small in stature for his age, was typically the target for bullies. He soon found that fighting back was not the best means of winning. King used his verbal abilities to his advantage and found that he could talk his way out of many situations. This technique proved to be his greatest asset later in life. King, while jailed in Birmingham, wrote a letter to his fellow clergymen stating what he felt was the underlying problem with society and civil rights. King expanded on the idea that whites were not as concerned with justice as much as keeping order. He again, without violence, used his words to get his message out. King was a powerful speaker as well as a writer. In his letter, he went to great lengths to explain the unjust laws that subdued black Americans. King detailed and gave examples of how segregation was made legal. He examined the difference and the interpretation of laws that worked in favor of whites and worked against blacks (King 219).
Throughout King’s life, he used his skill of speaking to not only provide for his family but also to speak out for civil rights. King accepted the Nobel peace prize and continued to use his political status to gain much support for his cause. All the while, King protested peacefully, talking his way through most situations that could have become violent. Too, he encouraged his followers to peacefully work though situations. After so much effort and positive influence, King was shot and killed ironically by a gunman who did not support his view of nonviolence. In 1968, King was dead in Memphis, Tennessee. However, his legacy continued (Clayton 100).
Even during two different time periods, both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. put their lives on the line in order to seek freedoms for black Americans. Douglass was born and raised in slavery, yet prevailed to accomplish much toward desegregation. King continued with this effort roughly 50 years later with peaceful protests in attempts to gain more rights for black Americans. These two prominent black Americans played a major role in the continuing struggle for civil rights and equality.
- Burchard, Peter. Frederick Douglass: For the Great Family of Man. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003. Print.
- Clayton, Ed. Martin Luther King: The Peaceful Warrior. New York: An Archway Paperback, 1969. Print.
- Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995. Print.
- Jacobus, Lee A. A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2010. Print
- King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. A World of Ideas. 219.