Frederick Douglass is best known as an abolitionist and a champion of African American rights. One of the most compelling orators of the nineteenth century, Douglass delivered countless abolitionist speeches and civil rights speeches to defend the African American community from slavery, discrimination and lynching. Frederick Douglass, though, did not fight for only the rights of African Americans. He fought for the human rights of all groups that he saw as being harassed or discriminated against and he involved himself in the great reform movements of his time. Douglass participated in the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 and signed the Declaration of Sentiments. He supported the labor movement, the temperance movement, and he fought against peonage. One of the little known facts about Frederick Douglass is his advocacy of equal rights for immigrants, especially Chinese laborers. In the book Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches edited by Josh Gottheimer, I found a speech that Douglass made on December 7, 1869 attacking the discrimination and violence that Chinese immigrants were facing. In light of the controversy over immigrant rights today, we could draw lessons from Frederick Douglass’s speech.
The Chinese were the first Asian immigrants to enter America, and they were initially welcomed to this country to fill California’s labor shortage in areas like draining swamps and mining the gold fields and quartz mines. According to Ronald Takaki’s book Strangers From A Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, the Chinese made great contributions in railroad construction, especially in laying tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad for the transcontinental railroad. Over 12,000 Chinese were employed by the Central Pacific Railroad, making up 90 percent of their entire workforce. They drilled and blasted rock during the winter and spring, and several miners froze in the snow.
After the Pacific stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, those Chinese workers entered low wage industries where employment was available to them. In the 1860s, Chinese workers made up 46% of San Francisco’s labor force in four key industries- boots and shoes, woolens, cigars and tobacco, and sewing. In the San Joaquin and Sacramento River deltas, Chinese workers constructed irrigation channels and miles of levees, dikes and ditches. They worked the vineyards and wineries of the Sonoma Valley. In 1870 the Chinese constituted 18 % of all farm laborers in California, and in 1880 they represented 86% of the agricultural labor force in Sacramento County, 85% in Yuba, 67% in Solano, 55% in Santa Clara, 46% in Yolo, and 43% in Tehema. Ronald Takaki would write about the importance of Chinese laborers:
The significant role of Chinese labor in the industrial development of California was widely recognized. A.W. Loomis, in his article “How Our Chinamen Are Employed”, counted thousands of Chinese factory operatives working in woolen mills, knitting mills, paper mills, powder mills, tanneries, shoe factories, and garment industries. In his essay “Chinamen or White Man, Which?” the Reverand O. Gibson argued that Califoria’s manufacturing interests could “not be maintained a single day” without the low rate of Chinese labor. In “The Golden State”, published in 1876, R. G. McClellan described the state’s economic dependency on Chinese labor: “In mining, farming, in factories, and in the labor generally of California the employment of the Chinese has been found most desirable; and much of the labor done by these people if performed by white men at higher wages could not be continued nor made possible.”
The Chinese worker was able to fill these low wage industries because they were easily exploited without any means of legal recourse. They would occassionally try to strike, but the industrialists would be able to get the militia to break up the strikes. Takaki wrote of the Chinese dilemma:
One answer to both questions was a proposal to reduce the Chinese into a permanently degraded cast-labor force: they would be ineffect a unique, transnational industrial reserve army of migrant laborers forced to ba a foreigner forever. They would be what sociologist Robert Blauner has termed an “internal colony,” a racially subordinated group. Unlike white immigrants such as the Irish, Italians, and Poles, the Chinese would be a politically proscribed group. Part of America’s process of production, they would not be allowed to become part of her body politic. “I do not believe they are going to remain here long enough to become good citizens,” Central Pacific official Charles Crocker told a legislative committee, “and I would not admit them to citizenship.”
For Crocker and other employers of Chinese labor, the Chinese would be allowed to enter and work temporarily, then return to their homeland while others would come here as replacements. The Chinese would be used to service the labor needs of America’s industry without threatening the racial homogeneity of the country’s citizenry. The migrant workers would be inducted into a labor supply in a circular pattern. Anti-Chinese laws, economic exploitation, and racial antagonism would assist in this process, compelling the Chinese to leave America after a limited period of employment. They would remain strangers.
This exploitation of the Chinese cheap labor caused resentment from the white labor force. Takaki wrote:
But the racially divided farm-labor force genererated ethnic antagonism, and Chinese became targets of white-labor resentment, especially during hard times. “White men and women who desire to earn a living,” the Los Angeles times reported on August 14, 1893, “have for some time been entering quiet protests against vineyardists and packers employing Chinese in preference to whites.” Their protests did not remain quiet as economic depression led to violent anti-Chinese riots by unemployed white workers throughout California. From Ukiah to the Napa Valley to Fresno to Redlands, Chinese were beaten and shot by white workers; they were herded to railroad stations and loaded onto trains. The Chinese bitterly remember this violence and expulsion as the “driving out”.
This racial resentment began to translate into anti-Chinese laws. American white miners threatened by the Chinese competition pressured the California legislature to pass the foreign miners’ license tax. This tax required a monthly payment of three dollars from every foreign miner who did not desire to become a citizen. This was aimed at the Chinese immigrants, since a 1790 federal law reserved naturalized citizenship to white persons. In 1855, the California legislature passed a law called “An Act to Discourage the Immigration to this State of Persons Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof”, which imposed on the owner of a ship a landing tax of fifty dollars for each passenger ineligible to natural citizenship. In 1862, the California legislature passed a law “to protect Free White Labor against competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California”, a law that levied a tax of $2.50 per month on all Chinese residing in the state, except those Chinese operating businesses, licensed to work in mines, or those engaged in the sugar, rice, coffee and tea industries.
The resentments that were building up against Chinese workers eventually resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the 1870s, the United States entered a severe economic slump and anti-Chinese groups like the Supreme Order of Caucasians and the Workingman’s Party pushed for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which excluded Chinese laborers from entering the country and it forced settled Chinese in the U.S. to to obtain certifications for reentry if they wanted to leave the U.S. and return. Signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 8, 1882, the act was supposed to last for only ten years, but it was extended as prejudiced feelings against Chinese remained strong as the country entered the twentieth century.
This was the atmosphere that Frederick Douglass addressed when he spoke in defense of Chinese immigrants on December 7, 1869 for the Parker Fraternity Course. The Parker Fraternity Course was a series of lectures in Boston, Massachussetts that was established by abolitionist minister Theodore Parker to talk about the important issues of the day. Douglass would say of the situation of the Chinese in America:
Already has California assumed a bitterly unfriendly attitude toward the Chinamen. Already has she driven them from her altars of justice. Already has she stamped them as outcasts and handed them over to popular contempt and vulgar jest. Already are they constant victims of cruel harshness and brutal violence. Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenseless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shilalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.
In all this there is, of course, nothing strange. Repugnance to the presence and influence of foreigners is an ancient feeling among men. It is peculiar to no particular race or nation. It is met with not only in the conduct of one nation toward another, but in the conduct of the inhabitants of different parts of the same country, some times of the same city, and even of the same village. “Lands intersected by a narrow frith, abhor each other. Mountains interposed, make enemies of nations.” To the Hindoo, every man not twice born, is Mleeka. To the Greek, every man not speaking Greek, is a barbarian. To the Jew, every one not circumcised, is a gentile. To the Mahometan, every man not believing in the prophet, is a kaffe. I need not repeat here the multitude of reproachful epithets expressive of the same sentiment among ourselves. All who are not to the manor born, have been made to feel the lash and sting of these reproachful names.
Douglass then sets forth his idea of an America of all races and cultures. He says:
I submit this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.
There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are eternal, universal, and indestructible. Among these, 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. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and the 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. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In anty struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.
But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.
I want a home here not only for the Negro, the mulatto, and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upone the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole, would become the property only of a part. So much for what is right, not let us see what is wise.
And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.
Frederick Douglass’s dream of a United States of different races and cultures all sharing equal opportunities has come a lot closer to becoming true. Our nation has benefitted from the inclusion of Europeans, Asians, Hispanics, and Africans into our cultural melting pot. When I read about the arguments about our current illegal immigration issues, and see laws like SB1070 pass in Arizona, I think of the situation of the plight of Chinese workers in the nineteenth century. In my eyes, the travails of the Chinese immigrants of the nineteenth century is very similar to the plight that illegal immigrants from Mexico are going through today. They are brought to this country to fill up labor shortages in certain industries and agricultural areas. They are given no means of redressing injustices inflicted on them and thus made vulnerable to being exploited for their cheap labor.
I deeply admire Frederick Douglass’s fight to champion the human rights of all groups who are oppressed or harassed. Most of the activists that I know support a broad range of causes. The people I know who are in unions also support the rights of immigrants. My gay and lesbian friends also are against the rise in Islamophobia. My friends who support immigrant rights also speak out for the Wisconsin workers and their rights of collective bargaining.
Many of my civil rights heroes also champion a broad view of human rights. Harvey Milk supported a Teamsters strike against beer distributors. Coretta Scott King and Dolores Huerta have strong advocated the rights of the LGBT community. Civil rights pioneer John Lewis has spoken out for immigrant rights and the Dream Act. Jesse Jackson has attended several union meetings and spoken out for blue collar workers and the unemployed in the midwest. Bayard Rustin spoke out against anti-semitism.
This ability to cherish universal human rights for all people is something I admire. Frederick Douglass summed up the fight against all prejudice in a quote I found in the book Frederick Douglass In His Own Words.
If what is called the instinctive aversion of the white race for the colored, when analyzed, is seen to be the same as that which men feel or have felt toward other objects wholly apart from color; if it should be the same as that sometimes exhibited by the haughty and rich to the humble and poor, the same as the Brahmin feels toward the lower caste, the same as the Norman felt toward the Saxon, the same as that cherished by the Turk against Christians, the same as Christians felt toward the Jews, the same as that which murders a Christian in Wallachia, calls him a “dog” in Constantinople, oppresses and persecutes a Jew in Berlin, hunts down a socialist in St. Petersburg, drives a Hebrew from an hotel at Saratoga, that scorns the Irishman i London, the same as Catholics once felt for Protestants, the same as that which insults, abuses, and kills the Chinaman on the Pacific slope- then may we well enough affirm that this prejudice really has nothing whatever to do with race or color, and that it has its motive and mainspring in some other source with which the mere facts of color and race have nothing to do…
Slavery, ignorance, stupidity, servility, poverty, dependence are undesirable conditions. When these shall cease to be coupled with color, there will be no color line drawn.
A youtube video of John Lewis speaking for immigrant rights
A youtube video of Dolores Huerta speaking out for gay marriage
Two youtube videos of Jesse Jackson supporting the workers of Wisconsin