In 1830, near the Boston Harbor, David Walker discreetly concealed a pamphlet within a sailor’s coat lining at a clothing store. Though physically unobtrusive, its contents were profoundly impactful. Regarded by many in the US government as an exceptionally perilous document in American history at the time, Walker had to employ various tactics, including enlisting both willing accomplices and unwitting sailors, to disseminate it clandestinely across the nation. But what exactly did this inflammatory document entail, and who was its author?
Born to a freedwoman and an enslaved father in late 18th-century Wilmington, North Carolina, David Walker enjoyed freedom from birth. Early on, he aspired to extend this liberty to all Black Americans. After relocating to Charleston as a young man, he became deeply involved with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). While the prevailing movement to end slavery, led by affluent white men, favored gradual change and avoided direct confrontation with slaveholders, the AME Church espoused a more radical abolitionist stance. In 1822, AME leader Denmark Vesey orchestrated a substantial insurrection plan aimed at forcibly liberating Charleston’s enslaved community and setting the city ablaze. Although Walker’s involvement in Vesey’s plan remains uncertain, he was not among the AME members apprehended and executed for this rebellion.
In 1825, Walker surfaced in Boston, reengaging in the anti-slavery struggle. Alongside marrying fellow activist Eliza Butler and establishing his clothing store, he played a role in funding America’s inaugural Black-owned newspaper. Through impassioned articles and public addresses, he sought to instill pride and camaraderie in those fighting for Black liberation. To truly unify free and enslaved Black Americans, Walker understood that he needed to extend his efforts beyond Boston. In 1829, he poured his ideals into the “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.” Marked by fervent exclamation points, it underscored the spiritual righteousness of resistance. Walker vividly depicted the suffering of enslaved individuals to underscore that the reality for Black Americans often boiled down to “kill or be killed.” Given these circumstances, he staunchly defended the right to militant action.
Walker deviated further from the moderate mainstream abolitionists. To underscore the significance of Black solidarity, he connected American abolitionism with global movements for Black liberation, advocating for an international Black freedom struggle, foreshadowing what would later be termed Pan-Africanism. Simultaneously, he opposed the popular movement for Black Americans to emigrate to Africa. While the “Appeal” censured the Founding Fathers for their hypocrisy, Walker asserted that Black people were indispensable to the country’s establishment and possessed an undeniable entitlement to American citizenship. Walker anticipated that his provocative arguments might make him a target for violence. Nevertheless, undeterred by the peril, he persisted in using sailors to disseminate his work.
The “Appeal” journeyed along the coast, reaching shopkeepers, church leaders, political organizers, and clandestine abolitionist networks. Walker’s words galvanized militant endeavors to overthrow slaveholders, striking fear into white officials with its call to arms. Authorities intercepted its distribution, detaining Black sailors at Southern ports. The pamphlet prompted Louisiana to outlaw anti-slavery literature, while both North and South Carolina cracked down on Black education to hinder literacy among the enslaved population. Southern officials even offered a substantial bounty, equivalent to $322,000 today, for Walker’s capture. Despite urgings from friends to flee, Walker remained steadfast in his cause. Tragically, his courage couldn’t shield him from the deadliest disease of his era. In August 1830, Walker was discovered deceased. Though his associates asserted he fell victim to an assassination, it is now widely believed he succumbed to tuberculosis.
Following his passing, Walker’s message endured. Frederick Douglass credited him as the progenitor of radical abolitionism, and his “Appeal” inspired some of the most influential figures of the 20th-century liberation movement. From Malcolm X’s militant approach to Black resistance to James Cone’s writings on Black spirituality, Walker’s legacy remains profoundly significant in the annals of Black resistance movements and their aspirations for the future.