David Walker was the Malcolm X of his day and for obvious reasons, we never hear about him. He was born September 28, 1796, and died August 6, 1830, an outspoken and unapologetic African-American abolitionist and anti-slavery activist. His mother was free, and his father was a slave, which made him a free man. In 1829, while living in Boston, Massachusetts, he published An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, a call for black unity and self-help in the fight against oppression and injustice.
The appeal brought attention to the abuses and inequities of slavery and the role of individuals to act responsibly for racial equality, according to religious and political tenets. At the time, some people were outraged and fearful of the reaction that the pamphlet would have. Many abolitionists thought the views were extreme.
Historians and liberation theologians cite the Appeal as an influential political and social document of the 19th century. Walker exerted a radicalizing influence on the abolitionist movements of his day and inspired future black leaders and activists.
In September 1829, Walker published his appeal to Black people entitled Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829. The purpose of the document was to encourage readers to take an active role in fighting their oppression, regardless of the risk, and to press white Americans to realize the moral and religious failure of slavery.
David Walker has often been regarded as an abolitionist with Black Nationalist views, in large measure because Walker envisioned a future for black Americans that included self-rule. As he wrote in the Appeal, “Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity. Then we will want all the learning and talents, and perhaps more, to govern ourselves.”
Scholars, such as historian Sterling Stuckey, have remarked upon the connection between Walker’s Appeal and black nationalism. In his 1972 study of The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism, Stuckey suggested that Walker’s Appeal” would become an ideological foundation… for Black Nationalist theory.” There are, of course, some historians have said that Stuckey overstated the extent to which Walker contributed to the creation of a black nation. Thabiti Asukile, in a 1999 article on “The All-Embracing Black Nationalist Theories of David Walker’s Appeal”, defended Stuckey’s interpretation. Asukile writes:
Though scholars may continue to debate this, it would seem hard to disprove that the later advocates of black nationalism in America, who advocated a separate nation-state based on geographical boundaries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would not have been able to trace certain ideological concepts to Walker’s writings. Stuckey’s interpretation of the Appeal as a theoretical black nationalist document is a polemical crux for some scholars who aver that David Walker desired to live in a multicultural America.
Those who share this view must consider that Stuckey does not limit his discourse on the Appeal to a black nationalism narrowly defined, but rather to a range of sentiments and concerns. Stuckey’s concept of a black nationalist theory rooted in African slave folklore in America is an original and pioneering one, and his intellectual insights are valuable to a progressive rewriting of African-American history and culture.
This country is as much ours as it is the whites, whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by. Walker, Article IV. The spirit of Walker lives on. Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, some liberation theologians and many others have respectfully followed in David Walker’s footsteps. Echoes of Walker’s Appeal can be heard vividly, for example, in Frederick Douglass’ famous 1852 speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”
Historian Herbert Aptheker has noted that
“Walker’s Appeal is the first sustained written assault upon slavery and racism to come from a black man in the United States. This was the main source of its overwhelming power in its own time; this is the source of the great relevance and enormous impact that remain in it, deep as we are in the twentieth century.
Walker does this not as one who hates the country but rather as one who hates the institutions which disfigure it and make it a hissing in the world. Never before or since was there a more passionate denunciation of the hypocrisy of the nation as a whole. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…