Lessons of the abolitionists are important today

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The organizing efforts of black and white abolitionists in the 1800s can provide us with powerful inspiration as we face the dangers of Trump and the Republican majority.

That’s one reason on May 18 I will be joining the upcoming celebration of Frederick Douglass’s first visit to the capital city at the Center Church (First Church of Christ in Hartford).

Frederick Douglass

American slavery was a cancer, polluting politics, dominating the economy, and paralyzing the nation’s moral spirit. Abolitionists developed many strategies– some more successful than others– to fight it.

Their tactical versatility sustained what was ultimately a victory over America’s “original sin” and the established order that protected it.

Grassroots organizing was the backbone of the movement.  Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley and many others visited dozens of Connecticut towns and cities, building local groups able to fight the top-down powers that kept slavery viable.

The abolitionists didn’t have a choice: no political party took them seriously. They were forced to oppose slave-holding presidents, the South’s stranglehold on Congress, and a racist majority on the Supreme Court.

Slavery opponents invented sanctuary (we know it as the Underground Railroad). Defying federal law, they engaged in civil disobedience by hiding and transporting other human beings who escaped bondage at the risk of their lives. Our state’s own Freedom Trail documents the locations where fugitives from slavery could find protection.

They used the boycott to refuse food and goods associated with slave labor. This would have included the “negro cloth” made in Willimantic and the “negro hoes” manufactured in Winsted.  [The fabric was rough and cheap, supposedly good enough for slaves. The farm implement was made sturdier than the traditional tools slaves had been breaking in deliberate acts of sabotage.]

Their DIY media was the only way to break through establishment newspapers. William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, Frederick Douglass’s North Star, and Hartford’s own The Republican spoke truth to power and effectively kept the national anti-slavery movement linked.

They supported the early labor movement, especially Douglass, who helped organize the Colored National Labor Union. This should not be surprising, because many abolitionists came from the growing working class: Douglass was a ship caulker, Garrison was a shoemaker and Kelley was a teacher and a farmer. Abolitionists understood that white workers could either be their allies or enemies, depending on the approach. Their message: no one was truly free until everyone was united in a common fight.

And finally, the abolitionists struggled with their own internal weaknesses.  The best were truly intersectional. Kelley, Douglass and others not only fought slavery, they advocated for the full participation of women in their movement. They were first to pick up the banner of women’s suffrage. They opposed the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-1848), condemning it as an imperialist land grab.

Not all slavery opponents truly believed that people of color were equal with the “white race.”  Many harbored their own deep prejudices that betrayed a paternal attitude towards black people, both free and enslaved.

Still, there were individuals like Hartford’s Rev. Dr. Joel Hawes. It was he who welcomed Douglass and Kelley to speak on the grounds of Center Church, a gesture that was surely criticized by the city’s elite.

“I would as soon think of holding an angel as property as an immortal man,” Hawes explained. When he offered a venue for Douglass and Kelley, Hawes had crossed the line from passive bystander to active resister.

Today, for the first time in their lives, ordinary people in Connecticut and around the nation are standing up– for peace, racial justice, gender equality, workers’ rights and environmental protection. Like the abolitionists of old, they are connecting the dots between the political and economic policies that foster the evils we now face.

Frederick Douglass and Abby Kelley found the strength to commit their lives to a historic struggle. The fight must have seemed overwhelming to them, like an unassailable wall fortified by money and power. But in the end they persisted, and won.

It will take just as much courage and perseverance for us today.

Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer. More information about the May 18th Frederick Douglass event in Hartford can be found at his website, ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com

 

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