David Walker: Unsung Hero In The Struggle Against Slavery

David Walker (1797?-1830) was a courageous and visionary African American leader and activist. He put his life on the line by publicly demanding the immediate end of slavery in the new nation of the United States.

Walker has had lasting influence on the ongoing struggle for equal rights and racial justice in the U.S. During his lifetime, he pushed other abolitionists to be more radical in their words and actions. And through the years his ideas have inspired many generations of Black leaders and activists of all backgrounds.

Walker was a leader in the African American community in Boston, Massachusetts. He is best known for writing and distributing a pamphlet called David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. This was a passionate call to his “afflicted and slumbering brethren” to rise up and cast off the chains that bound their minds as well as their bodies. Walker was an evangelical Christian. In the Appeal, he takes white Christians to task for supporting slavery and the savage and unchristian treatment of fellow human beings.

The Appeal was published at a time of growing resistance to slavery. Free Black communities were expanding, and slave rebellions were on the rise. Walker used underground activist networks to circulate copies of his pamphlet throughout the South. This distribution effort has been called “one of the boldest and most extensive plans to empower slaves ever conceived” in the U.S. before the Civil War.

Outraged slaveholders and their allies reacted with alarm to the Appeal. They destroyed any copies they could find. They dealt brutally with those found with the pamphlet in their possession. And they passed new laws against anti-slavery material.

David Walker died in Boston in 1830 at the age of 34. The official cause of death was consumption (lung disease.) Within the Black community, rumors persisted that Walker had been murdered, probably poisoned, by agents of Southern planters. His probable gravesite in a South Boston cemetery is unmarked.

Praise & Recognition

“Many will suffer for pleading the cause of oppressed Africa, and I shall glory in being one of her martyrs; for I am firmly persuaded, that the God in whom I trust is able to protect me from the rage and malice of mine enemies, and from them that will rise up against me; and if there is no other way for me to escape, He is able to take me to himself, as He did the most noble, fearless, and undaunted David Walker..."

“But where is the man that has distinguished himself in these modern days by acting wholly in defence of African rights and liberty? There was one, although he (David Walker) sleeps, his memory lives.”

-- Maria Stewart (1803-1879), abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and public speaker

“The question is sometimes asked, when, where and by whom the Negro was first suspected of having any rights at all? In answer to this inquiry it has been asserted that William Lloyd Garrison originated the Anti-slavery movement, that until his voice was raised against the American slave system, the whole world was silent. With all respect to those who make this claim I am compelled to dissent from it….Benjamin Lundy, a humble Quaker, though not the originator of the Anti-slavery movement, was in advance of Mr. Garrison. Walker, a colored man, whose appeal against slavery startled the land like a trump of coming judgment, was before either Mr. Garrison or Mr. Lundy.”

-- Frederick Douglass, (1818-1895), abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman

The Appeal was “that tremendous indictment of slavery” that represented the first “program of organized opposition to the action and attitude of the dominant white group (and included) ceaseless agitation and insistent demand for equality.”

-- W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), intellectual leader, historian, author, and civil rights activist 

Contemporary Reaction to David Walker's Appeal

...turns American racist thought on its head, placing European civilization under the microscope of judgment rather than Africans, and in so doing, articulates some of the central themes of the Black Power Movement's political philosophy, 150 years before its zenith.

-- Kai Wright, Ed., The African-American Archives, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishing, 2001.

Sources: To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance by Peter P. Hinks, 1997, Pennsylvania State University Press; David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, edited with an introduction and annotations by Peter P. Hinks, 2003, Pennsylvania State University Press; Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston, edited by Donald M. Jacobs, 1993, Indiana University Press; One Continual Cry: David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829-1830): Its Setting and Its Meaning by Herbert Aptheker, 1965, Humanities Press; Boston’s Abolitionists by Kerri Greenidge, 2006, Commonwealth Editions; David Walker (abolitionist) – Wikipedia http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Walker_%28abolitionist%29