Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was one of the most impressive individuals of his time. He was one of history’s greatest orators, thinkers, and statesmen. As a writer, he has been compared to Shakespeare; as a thinker to Thomas Paine; as an orator he has been compared to Martin Luther King; and as a statesman to Abraham Lincoln.
Ingersoll courageously fought for the rights of women and children. He fought for the rights of African Americans and spoke out against slavery when it was unpopular to do so. Long before Martin Luther King, Ingersoll uttered these words:
“I have a dream that this world is growing better and better everyday and every year; that there is more charity, more justice, more love every day. I have a dream that prisions will not always curse the land; that the shadow of the gallows will not always fall upon the earth; that the withered hand of want will not always be stretched out for charity; that finally wisdom will sit in the legislatures, justice in the courts, charity will occupy all the pulpits, and that finally the world will be governed by justice and charity, and by the splendid light of liberty….” (The Works of Ingersoll, (The Dresden Edition), Volume IX, p. 186)
Ingersoll was a merciless critic of the Bible. Like Malcolm X in the following century, Ingersoll faulted biblical teachings that promoted “slave virtues” such as obedience and turning the other cheek. In response to the idea that victims should turn the other cheek, Ingersoll said that “Goodness should have the right to defend itself.” He noted that the Bible was used in every phase of slavery, from the naming and blessing of slave ships, to the selling of slaves at auctions, to the beating of slaves, and as an aid in teaching slaves to “get with the program.” Ingersoll stated that “The Bible was the real auction block on which every negro stood when he was sold.” (The Denver Republican, Denver, Colorado, January 17, 1884)
Ingersoll was a friend of Frederick Dougalss. Dougalss once visited Ingersoll at his home in Peoria, Illinois and was overwhelmed by his kindness and hospitality. Prior to his trip to Peoria, an African American activist told Douglass that Ingersoll is “a man that will receive you at any hour of the night, and in any weather….”
Long before King, Ingersoll noted that the churches were the most segregated institutions in America, yet bigoted White ministers talked about an integrated Heaven. He attacked segregation and noted that the KKK were among the most religious Christians in the U.S.
Despite his relentless critiques of Christianity, Ingersoll once donated money to a Black church. (However, a White minister asked him for a donation to rebuild his church after it was destroyed by a tornado. Ingersoll simply responded that if God Almighty blew the church down, he could blow it back together again.) Of African Americans, Ingersoll said, “They are the most forgiving people in the world, and about the only real Christians in our country.” (The Best of Robert Ingersoll: Selections from his writings and speeches, Roger E. Greeley, Editor, p. 19)
In 1881, a U.S. congressman proposed a bill to colonize Blacks in Mexico. Ingersoll opposed the legislation. He said:
“As the whites of the South become civilized the reason for going will be less and less….Now, if we could only have a colonization bill that would get rid of all the rowdies, all the rascals and hypocrites, I would like to see it carried out….Politically, if any black men are to be sent away, I want it understood that each one is to be accompanied by a Democrat, so that the balance of power, especially in New York, will not be disturbed.” (Washington Correspondent, the Brooklyn Eagle, January 31, 1881)
Ingersoll’s list of Black supporters reads like a Whos Who. Mary Church Terrell, the author, lecturer, and civil rights activist that led the fight to desegregate Washington, D.C., owed a great debt to him. In her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, Terrell wrote that Ingersoll was one of the best friends Black people ever had. (The Best of Robert Ingersoll, p. 154) Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar credited Ingersoll with landing him a job in Washington, D.C., (ibid, p. 63)
After Ingersoll died in 1899, Black nationalist Henry McNeal Turner eulogized him quite eloquently in his periodical, the Voice of Missions, September 1899. Perhaps the most effusive praise for “the Great Agnostic” came in a resolution enthusiastically adopted by the Indiana State Afro-American conference at Indianapolis, on July 26, 1899:
…Mr. Ingersoll always advocated for the rights of the oppressed. His ability and his purse were always at the service of our people. On all questions that arose concerning the colored people, Mr. Ingersoll was always found on our side. (Ingersoll: A Biographical Appreciation, Second Edition, in The Works of Ingersoll, (The Dresden Edition) Volume XIII, p. 448)
Humanity has never had a more loyal or loving friend than Robert Green Ingersoll.