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The Radicalism of David Walker

Imagine someone suggesting to you that the earth is flat. Or that cars should be abolished – right now. You’d think they were crazy, right? Or at best out of touch with reality.

That’s what a lot of people thought about David Walker when he demanded immediate action to dismantle slavery by white religious and legislative bodies that accepted and supported it, and when he said that Blacks had the power to end slavery through their own organized efforts. This was unthinkable for the vast majority of whites. And it seemed an impossible dream for most Blacks: slave catcher patrols were everywhere, and the slaveholders’ brutal system of control was legitimized by law and deeply entrenched.

Indeed, in the 1820’s, slavery was the norm in most states. It was a powerful institution and the economic foundation of the entire country, north and south.

Moreover, most whites considered Black people innately inferior. The “natural” social order had whites at the top, Indians below them, and Blacks at the bottom. Slavery was part of God’s plan for Blacks; it said so in the Bible. Blacks were sub-human, and slavery was a kindness; it gave them opportunities to rise above their barbarous state.

These views were influenced by – and reinforced by – white religious leaders, politicians, and scientists. Throughout the 19th century, leading scientists sought to prove that whites were “naturally” superior and more intelligent because Blacks and other people of color were biologically different. (Contemporary science has proven that genetically we’re all pretty much alike – more so that most other species. Two fruit flies are ten times more genetically different than two human beings.)

In the context of his time, then, the ideas of David Walker were more than radical. They were revolutionary.

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