A Leader Ahead Of His Times

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Whipper was never a militant—and perhaps for that reason, his voice was not heard as loudly as some in the troubled years before the outbreak of the Civil War. The Reform Society, in which he played so prominent a part, tried to promote such general aims as Negro education, a Negro press, and histories of the Negro people. Whipper himself went further: while he acknowledged that these were sound goals for the present, he also pressed for the integration of his race into the white community at the earliest possible moment. For his opposition to the building of separate churches and schools for Negroes and to the acceptance of any other segregated facilities, he was regarded by many of his contemporaries as a crankbut apparently he was merely ahead of his times.

Interestingly enough, Whipper was also an advocate of passive resistance. In September, 1837, an article of his on this subject was published in the Negro newspaper, The Colored American . It was titled “An Address on Non-Resistance to Offensive Aggression” and had originally been a speech delivered before the Reform Society on the subject: “Resolved, That the practice of non-resistance to physical aggression is not only consistent with reason, but the surest method of obtaining a speedy triumph of the principles of universal peace.” But the Colored American’s editor felt it necessary to take issue with Whipper’s thesis. In introducing the essay, he wrote, “We publish this address with pleasure… . But we honestly confess that we have yet to learn what virtue there would be in using moral weapons in defense against kidnappers or a midnight incendiary with a torch in his hand.” So then, and so today: it is an argument that never ceases.

Whipper’s address was written twelve years before the appearance of Thoreau’s famous essay on nonviolent resistance, “Civil Disobedience.” Despite similarities in their viewpoints, there is no indication that Whipper in any way influenced Thoreau—rather, they were both part of the liberal tide of their day. Yet the steps from Whipper to Thoreau—and from Thoreau to Gandhi and Martin Luther King—are at least chronologically obvious: the Negro lumber merchant’s intellectual career has overtones for our own times.