African American abolitionist David Walker (1785-1830) wrote Walker's Appeal, urging slaves to resort to violence when necessary to win their freedom. Walker is not recognized in school textbooks for his contribution to ending chattel slavery in the United States, yet many historians and liberation theologians cite Walker’s Appeal as an influential political and social document of the 19th century. They credit Walker for exerting a radicalizing influence on the abolitionist movements of his day and beyond. He has inspired many generations of Black leaders and activists of all backgrounds.
David Walker was born free, of a free mother and slave father, in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 28, 1785. He early learned to read and write, and he read extensively on the subjects of revolution and resistance to oppression. When he was about 30, he left the South, because "If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long. As true as God reigns, I will be avenged for the sorrows which my people have suffered." In 1826 Walker settled in Boston, Mass., where he became the agent for Freedom's Journal, the black abolitionist newspaper, and a leader in the Colored Association. For a living he ran a secondhand clothing store.
Walker published an antislavery article in September 1828; with three others, it became the pamphlet Walker's Appeal (1829). The articles were articulate and militant in their bitter denunciation of slavery, those who profited by it, and those who willingly accepted it. Walker called for vengeance against white men, but he also expressed the hope that their cruel behavior toward blacks would change, making vengeance unnecessary. His message to the slaves was direct: if liberty is not given you, rise in bloody rebellion.
Southern slave masters hated Walker and put a price on his head. In 1829, 50 unsolicited copies of Walker's Appeal were delivered to a black minister in Savannah, Ga. The frightened minister, understandably concerned for his welfare, informed the police. The police, in turn, informed the governor of Georgia. As a result, the state legislature met in secret session and passed a bill making the circulation of materials that might incite slaves to riot a capital offense. The legislature also offered a reward for Walker's capture, $10,000 alive and $1,000 dead.
Other Southern states took similar measures. Louisiana enacted a bill ordering expulsion of all freed slaves who had settled in the state after 1825. The slaveholding South was frightened by men like Walker, and their harsh reactions to the threat they saw in Walker's Appeal seemed justified when black slave Nat Turner led his bloody rebellion in 1831.
Most abolitionists disagreed with Walker's advice to the slaves to resort to violence to obtain freedom. White abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who believed in immediate emancipation but thought it could be accomplished through persuasion and argument, did endorse the spirit of the Appeal, however, and ran large portions of it, together with a review, in his paper, the Liberator. On the other hand, Frederick Douglass accepted a more activist position, probably due to Walker's influence and that of Henry H. Garnet, who also called for massive slave rebellions.
Walker died in Boston on June 28, 1830, under mysterious circumstances. His challenge to the slaves to free themselves was an important contribution to the assault on human slavery.