According to religion scholar Gayraud S. Wilmore, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World was “the most powerful piece of [anti-slavery] propaganda written by a black.” In it, Wilmington native David Walker encouraged slaves to revolt against their masters. It was published in three installments in 1829—a time in which many white Southerners feared slave insurrections and two years before Nat Turner’s violent revolt in Virginia.
Appeal uses religious language in putting forth an abolitionist message. With desperation, Walker calls for a slave revolt, for restructuring society, and for restoring true Christianity. According to Wilmore, Appeal’s criticism of church and societal corruption is “unparalleled in American literature.” Yet Walker never renounced Christianity; he only criticized hypocritical behavior in the Church and appealed to all Christians to oppose slavery.
Several major points are in Appeal. After relaying a history of slavery in various civilizations, Walker argues that American slavery has been the most degrading, for unlike slavery in ancient Israel, to name one example, blacks were not considered part of the human family. White Christians are presented as possessing an “innate devilishness” that prompts them to strip purposefully humanity from black slaves. He also denounces whites for withholding education and enlightenment from slaves, and he criticizes Christian ministers for not denouncing slavery in their numerous periodicals. Walker furthermore criticizes colonization efforts as a solution to race problems in the United States.
Throughout the book, Walker regards white Americans as blacks’ “natural enemies,” and the North Carolina native calls for a slave revolt as an expression of black manhood. Although Appeal is a militant document, Walker hopes that violence is unnecessary; however, he thinks societal change and the abolition of slavery is almost unlikely without it. He admits that all whites are not blacks’ enemies, and white slaveowners and slavery apologists should ask for God’s forgiveness.
Appeal’s publication alarmed many Southerners. Various mayors, including Harrison Gray Otis of Savannah, Georgia tried to prevent its distribution. Its publication, combined with the Nat Turner Revolt (1831) in Virginia, undoubtedly struck fear in white Southerners. In particular, North Carolina’s legislature banned the pamphlet from being distributed within the state. This act also prohibited whites and free blacks from teaching slaves how to read and write. Both were done to prevent possible slave insurrection.
Milton Ready, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, 2006) and Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People (New York, 1993).