I Claim the Rights of a Man


Turner, Henry MacNeal




With the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, reconstruction legislatures were established in many Southern states in an effort to resolve issues such as the acceptance of the new legal status of formerly enslaved African Americans. Henry MacNeal Turner (1834-1915), a freeborn African American minister and army chaplain, was elected to Georgia’s reconstruction legislature and served in it until the white majority expelled all black representatives in 1868. With this speech, delivered in September of that year, Turner confronts the other members of the house on the issue of his expulsion and calls into question his colleagues’ authority to charge him “with an offense committed by the God of heaven himself,” namely, his race. He further questions his own duty to serve and protect “a country where [his] manhood is denied.” What right or rights have Turner’s colleagues violated by expelling him from their association? Are there rights that all people share, and who is responsible for deciding what those rights are?

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The Civically Engaged Reader, eds. Adam Davis & Elizabeth Lynn (Great Books Foundation, 2006), pages 13-15.




Citizenship and DemocracyDiversity and DifferenceExclusion and BelongingJustice and Equality

Big Questions

What are our responsibilities as citizens? Who or what are we responsible for?What makes a "good" citizen?How do we learn to have dialogue across difference? What does it look like?Is diversity important? Why?What do people gain from joining a group? What do they lose?Who gets left out and why?Can there be justice without equality?Is justice for all possible? Or will injustice always exist?What is justice? How do we recognize it?


Civically Engaged Reader

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. How and why does the speaker distinguish between "begging" and "demanding" his rights?
  2. Why does the speaker ask "am I a man?"
  3. Why is defining manhood or humanity important here?
  4. Why does the speaker emphasize his military service?
  5. What right is the speaker claiming?
  6. Who is responsible for deciding what rights exist and to whom?
  7. What makes someone a citizen? In your service work, how do you respect others' rights as people, community members, and citizens?
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