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(1858) John S. Rock, “I Will Sink or Swim with My Race”

Schoolteacher, dentist, physician, lawyer, graduate of the American Medical College in Philadelphia, member of the Massachusetts bar, proficient in Greek and Latin, Dr. John S. Rock was unequivocally one of the most distinguished African American leaders to emerge in the United States during the antebellum era. On March 5, 1858, Dr. Rock delivered a speech at Boston’s Fanueil Hall as part of the annual Crispus Attucks Day observance organized by Bostons black abolitionists in response to the Dred Scott decision.

Rock shared the platform with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Theodore Parker. Three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Dr. Rock correctly predicted that African Americans were destined to play an important role in the impending military conflict over slavery. His speech appears below.

Ladies and Gentlemen: You will not expect a lengthened speech from me to-night. My health is too poor to allow me to indulge much in speechmaking. But I have not been able to resist the temptation to unite with you in this demonstra-tion of respect for some of my noble but misguided ancestors.

White Americans have taken great pains to try to prove that we are cowards. We are often insulted with the assertion, that if we had had the courage of the Indians or the white man, we would never have submitted to be slaves. I ask if Indians and white men have never been slaves? The white man tested the Indians courage here when he had his organized armies, his battlegrounds, his places of retreat, with everything to hope for and everything to lose. The position of the African slave has been very different. Seized a prisoner of war, unarmed, bound hand and foot, and conveyed to a distant country among what to him were worse than cannibals; brutally beaten, halfstarved, closely watched by armed men, with no means of knowing their own strength or the strength of their enemies, with no weapons, and without a probability of success. But if the white man will take the trouble to fight the black man in Africa or