Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Peacemaker Profiles #6: Vincent Harding

Vincent Gordon Harding (1931-) is a former Mennonite minister, a historian, and a nonviolent activist for social change.  Born in New York City, Hardin attended public schools and graduated from Morris High School in 1948.  While doing social justice-related mission work for Mennonites, Harding earned a B.A. in history from City University of New York (CUNY) in 1953.  In 1957, Harding moved to Chicago to continue his studies in history at the University of Chicago, receiving his M.A. in 1959 and Ph.D. in 1960.  While in Chicago, he met Rosmarie Freeney, his future wife, at a Mennonite conference. (Rosemarie Freeney-Harding (1930-2004) will be the subject of a future profile in this series.) 

In 1958, Harding became part of an interracial pastoral team at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago, where he and Rose were married 1960.  In 1961 the Hardings moved to Atlanta as representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee and founded “Mennonite  House,” the South’s first interracial voluntary service agency (which also served as the Harding residence). It was located around the corner from Martin and Corretta King’s house and served as a base for the Hardings’ travels around the nation in various civil rights campaigns.  The Hardings worked closely with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC–Martin Luther King’s organization) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, known to both friend and foe as “SNICK”), but also worked other Freedom Movement groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which the Hardings had known from their Chicago days.

While in Atlanta, Vincent taught history and sociology at Spelman College (a historic African American liberal arts college for women).  When Howard Zinn left Spelman in 1964 for Boston University in 1964, Harding took over as chair of the Department of History and Sociology at Spelman from 1964 to 1968.  The Hardings’ deep involvement with the Freedom Movement led to conflicts with the Mennonite Church, due to the Mennonite tradition of isolation from “the world.”  Therefore, after Martin Luther King’s death in 1968, the Hardings turned over Mennonite House’s operations to others. [Addition from a Mennonite friend: This conflict led Harding to leave the Mennonite ministry and the Mennonite Church.]  Harding became the first director of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center for Nonviolent Social Change. 

In 1969 Harding founded theInstitute of  the Black World in order to help shape the emerging educational discipline of Black Cultural Studies.  From 1974 to 1981, the Hardings lived in Philadelphia where Vincent taught simultaneously at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center, Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania.  From 1981 to 2004, Harding was Professor of Religion and Social Change at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO, where he continues as Professor Emeritus.  Harding was the senior historical advisor to the PBS-TV series Eyes on the Prize and Eyes on the Prize II which chronicled the Freedom Movement in depth. In 2000, Harding founded the Veterans of Hope project at Iliff to preserve oral histories of veterans of social change movements.

Harding has been a contributing editor to Sojourners, (a magazine for Christian social activism) and his many writings include:

Must Walls Divide? Questions for Christians (1965); The Religion of Black Power (1968); The Other American Revolution (1980); There is a River:  The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981; rev. ed., 1993); We Must Keep Going: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Future of America (1989); The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader  (C0-editor, 1991); Hope and History:  Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (1990; rev. ed., 2000, 2010);  Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Inconvenient Hero (1996; rev. ed., 2008);  We Changed the World:  African-Americans, 1945-1970 (Co-author, 1997).

January 27, 2011 Posted by | biographies, blog series, civil rights leaders, heroes, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemakers | Leave a comment

Peacemaker Profiles # 2: Diane Nash

Diane Nash (1938 -), Unsung Heroine of the Civil Rights Movement
by Michael Westmoreland-White

In the 20th Century, nonviolent mass movements began to build upon the experiences of earlier movements. This is abundantly clear in the case of the many connections between Gandhi and the Indian Freedom Struggle and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement (or African-American Freedom Struggle). The experiences of the Indian Freedom Struggle were reported and analyzed closely by Black newspapers in the U.S., newspapers that were distributed far outside their primary geographical circulation in the lobbies of the Black Church, African American barber shops and beauty salons, and in local chapters of the NAACP. Further, numerous African-American leaders traveled to India and met with Gandhi or (after Gandhi’s 1948 assassination) colleagues at Gandhi’s ashram. One such African-American was a young Methodist ministerial student whose pacifist convictions led him to become a conscientious objector to the Korean War, one of the first African-Americans to be granted C.O. status by the Selective Service Board. This young man was James Lawson and he studied organized nonviolence in India before returning to the United States to finish seminary. Lawson had hoped to do graduate studies at Harvard University, but Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced him that the Civil Rights movement needed him in the South. So, Lawson enrolled as a graduate student in theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, one of the few prestigious institutions of the South willing to admit a few black students yearly.

Nashville was part of the segregated South, but not quite as virulently racist as many more cities deeper in the South. For instance, Nashville boasted of being the home of several African-American institutions of higher learning: Tennessee State University, The American Baptist Theological Seminary, Meherry Medical College, and Fisk University. In the Fall semester of 1959, Lawson began offering workshops in nonviolence for the students of these institutions on the premises of First Colored Baptist Church (whose pastor, Kelly Miller Smith, was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith organization dedicated to nonviolence) and Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, near the campus of Vanderbilt Divinity School. A white student at Fisk University named Paul LaPrad told a young woman at Fisk named Diane Nash of these workshops and she soon joined a small group of African-American students whose names would read like a Who’s Who of future Civil Rights leaders: Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and James Bevel. By November, Nash had become the unofficial leader of the group.

Diane Judith Nash was a light-skinned African-American woman with green eyes who had been born and raised in Chicago. Although used to the racism of the North, she knew of the more blatant indignities heaped on African-Americans only through the stories of her father, who was from the deep South. In Chicago, Nash had even won several beauty pageants over white rivals as a teen, something that would never have been allowed in the South. She came from a middle-class Catholic family and had, at one time, even considered becoming a nun. Instead she enrolled as an English major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville in 1959. In Nashville, Nash had found the segregated restrictions overwhelming and personally degrading. So, although she was initially skeptical about Gandhian nonviolence, she joined Lawson’s workshops determined to challenge Nashville’s Jim Crow laws. Some of those workshops took place at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN, a center for popular education for social change founded by a white Christian radical named Myles Horton. At Highlander, Nash met and learned from Septima Clark, a 60 year old organizer of unions and educator in voter registration for the NAACP, white ministers Glenn Smiley (United Methodist, an organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation or F.O.R.) and Will D. Campbell (Baptist, a liason between the National Council of Churches and the Civil Rights movement), and other African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and C. T. Vivian.

Back in Nashville, it was time to put these workshops to use, especially as nationally the Civil Rights movement was in a stall. On 7 February 1960, the students began the Sit-In Movement in Nashville, attempting to be served at the lunch counters of downtown department stores such as Woolworth. As the sit-ins continued, the press soon began to focus on Nash as a spokesperson because she was articulate and poised in front of cameras, doubtless due in part to her past in beauty pageants. The exposure placed her in extra danger. She once overheard white teenage hoodlums mutter, “That’s her. Nash. She was on TV. She’s the one to get.” Indeed, when white mob violence was released on the sit-ins, Nash was sometimes singled out for violence. But as a practitioner of nonviolence, she found courage in herself that she didn’t know she possessed. When the students decided not to accept bail or pay the $50 fines for their arrests (or allow others to pay them), Nash was chosen to explain their decision in court. She addressed the judge with respect, but without the fawning subservience Southern whites expected of African-Americans. “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.”

By April 1960, the sit-ins had cost Nashville tourist dollars and the downtown sector was suffering as whites stayed in the suburbs rather than shop downtown. The mayor, Ben West, tried to intervene and negotiate a compromise. He addressed a crowd of African-Americans (with small numbers of white supporters) and told them of his attempts at negotiating with the lunch-counter owners. He suggested at the end that they all pray together. Nash spoke up. “What about eating together?” West replied, “We should also try to arrange that.” Nash: “Then, Mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?” Put on the spot, West answered, “Yes.” The crowd erupted in cheers. Soon the lunch counters were desegregated and the movement went on to successfully challenge segregation at Nashville’s movie theaters and churches.

Toward the end of 1960, the Nashville students began to communicate with student movements in other Southern cities, notably in North Carolina. They decided to create an organized movement for the entire South and named it, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC, which members and others alike began calling “SNICK.” Diane Nash left college to work full-time as a SNCC field worker. At first, SNCC had two branches, one for voter registration work and one for nonviolent direct action. Nash led the direct action wing of SNCC, along with her old friends John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel, to whom she would soon be married.

In 1961, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), led by James Farmer, revived a nonviolent strategy they had successfully used in 1940, the “Freedom Rides” in which white and black activists rode interstate buses (Greyhound and Trailways, then separate companies) together into the South where segregated seating was still the law. Federal laws demanding desegregation on interstate buses and in bus stations were not enforced. The Freedom Riders were to test compliance. In the deep South, they encountered mob violence that injured several of the Riders and threatened to destroy the rides. Nash contacted SNCC for students to take up the rides by substituting for injured CORE riders. She herself rode one of the buses into Mississippi where she endured both mob violence and imprisonment.

After this, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization founded and headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., hired Nash and James Bevel as field workers and liaison with SNCC, seeking to bridge the trust gap between the more militant (but still nonviolent) students and the older and more moderate leaders (mostly African American ministers) of SCLC. She also tried to build bridges to the NAACP which considered both SNCC and SCLC to be far too radical. NAACP had been committed to a strategy of legal challenge in the courts and was threatened by the nonviolent direct action campaigns. In these roles, Diane Nash Bevel was more than competent. Her articulate speaking bridged communication gaps between the various civil rights organizations and her good looks frankly charmed most of the (male) leaders of other organizations.

Nash was to learn the suffering that comes with nonviolent action in oppressive contexts. In May 1962, she was jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, for teaching black children the tools of nonviolent direct action, just as she had learned them from Lawson and others. She was four months pregnant, but was still sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment. On appeal, Nash only served a short time before release. Nash was also a major organizer for the 1963 campaign in Birmingham. Despite all these leadership roles, the sexism of both the press and the major civil rights organizations soon eclipsed her. In the 1963 March on Washington, not one woman was scheduled to speak. Nash was introduced by A. Philip Randolph, chair of the march, as “one of the outstanding women of the civil rights struggle,” but she was expected to fade into the background sweetly after that introduction.

Nash continued to play a vital role in the Freedom Movement. It was Nash who designed the plan used by the SCLC for their successful campaign in Selma, AL, in 1965. She also became a liaison to the peace movement and the early actions of the women’s movement. After 1965, however, Nash seemed to cut all ties to the SCLC and SNCC. SNCC had changed leadership that year, and its new head, Stokely Carmichael, took SNCC away from a commitment to nonviolence under his leadership to embrace the slogan “Black Power,” which he coined. The continued sexism of the SCLC and its dominance by clergy also alienated Nash.

Today, Nash, now divorced from James Bevel because of his serial adulteries, has returned to Chicago, completed her education, and is an educator. She has yet to write a “movement memoir,” but gave a full interview in 1998 that became part of the book, Free At Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It by Fred Powledge (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991). Nash remains involved in quiet ways in organizations working for racial justice and reconciliation and with the peace movement. She has remained committed to nonviolence as a way of life.

August 22, 2010 Posted by | biographies, blog series, civil rights leaders, heroes, History, peace, racial justice | Leave a comment

Recommended Works on Frederick Douglass

In my last post, I mentioned that there is a mini-scholarly renaissance in studies on Frederick Douglass.  Here are some of the better studies.

First, one needs to be familiar with the primary sources.  Douglass wrote 3 autobiographical works:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).  All 3 have been collected together as Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Library of America, 1994).  Many of Douglass’ articles from The Liberator and from The North Star have been collected as Collected Articles of Frederick Douglass–A Slave (CreateSpace, 2010).  Another excellent collection is Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner (1910-1994), abrided and adapted by Yuval Taylor (Lawrence Hill, 2000).  Two other excellent collections are The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. William L. Andrews (Oxford University Press, 1996) and Frederick Douglass:  A Critical Reader (Blackwell Critical Readers), ed. Bill Lawson and Frank Kirkland (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

Among the many secondary sources on Douglass’ thought, I especially recommend the following:

Reginald F. Davis, Frederick Douglass: Precursor to Liberation Theology (Mercer University Press, 2005).

Scott C. Williamson, The Narrative Life:  The Moral and Religious Thought of Frederick Douglass (Mercer University Press, 2002).

John Stauffer, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Twelve, 2008). 

James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican:  Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Anti-Slavery Politics (Norton, 2008).

Maria Diedrich, Love Across Color Lines:  Ottilie Assing and Frederick Douglass (Hill and Wang, 2000). 

William B. Rogers, We are All Together Now:  Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Prophetic Tradition (Routledge, 1995).

I’d also recommend Per Caritatem, the blog of theologian and philosopher Cynthia R. Nielsen, one of the few white theologians or philosophers who regularly interacts seriously with African-American scholars (and other non-white scholars).  Her work on Douglass is on a par with her excellent work on St.  Augustine of Hippo.

July 30, 2010 Posted by | book reviews, civil rights leaders, History, oppression, racial justice | Leave a comment

Garrison and Douglass: Friendship and Estrangement

The most famous white abolitionist in the U.S., and deservedly so, is William Lloyd Garrison.  The most famous black abolitionist, and deservedly so, is Frederick Douglass.  For over a decade (1841-1850), they were also close friends and co-workers in the American Anti-Slavery Society.  While not identical, their views on most topics of the day were close and each defended the other from attacks by critics.  Yet their friendship ended and the two men became estranged–a breach that was never healed in life.  Why?

Was it lingering racism on Garrison’s part, or an unconscious patronism that had difficulty when Douglass’ fame and leadership began to outstrip Garrison’s in the cause they both lived for?  Was it simply natural competition and resentment between two selve-made men from humble backgrounds–both strong-willed, ambitious, strivers?  Was it a growing “black nationalism” on Douglass’ part–an estrangement from the goal of an equal and integrated society?  Did the complex tensions of self-determination and integration break the two men apart in a way similar to the break-down of “black and white together, we shall overcome” in the face of militant nationalism and smoldering resentments in the Freedom Movement a century later?  Can we who seek a just and equal “rainbow society” today learn from both their friendship and its breakdown?

First, let us examine their very real friendship.  William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was older than Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) by more than a decade and began as a mentor to Douglass.  They met in an 1841 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in which Garrison was the headline speaker but Douglass was unexpectedly asked to tell the story of his life during slavery and his escape to freedom. (Even his name, Frederick Douglass, was a pseudonymn to make it harder for slavecatchers to find and return him to slavery.) Riveted like everyone else, Garrison asked the crowd, “Have we been listening to the testimony of a piece of property or a man?” “A man!” they thundered in reply. “Can we ever allow such a man to be treated as property?” “Never!” “Can you doubt that such treatment is the grossest sin?” “No!” “Then will you pledge with us to end this sin and crime in which 3 million of our fellow beings are not seen as fellow citizens, but simply as property and tools of another to use as he will?” “YES!!”

Garrison and Douglass often shared a speaking stage for the American Anti-Slavery Society and they worked well together.  Because Garrison’s religious views had become more suspect (from hanging around Hicksite Quakers, Unitarians and holiness perfectionists) and Douglass was seen as more theologically orthodox, the tag-team often had Garrison keep quiet on-stage about the churches’ complicity in slavery while Douglass would thunder against the racism of the white churches.  Meanwhile, because Douglass was more vulnerable to reprisals by local, state, and federal governments, it would be Garrison who took the lead in criticizing the racism even of the free states.  This was a careful strategy since both men actually had radical views about the need for reform of both state and church.

Both were also strong supporters of women’s rights–although, after Garrison’s death, Douglass would strain his relationships with many white feminists by supporting the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution even though it protected the voting rights of black men but continued to deny the right to vote to women of all races. 

Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, first published Douglass’ story in 1845 as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  Garrison has never received enough credit for this publication. It was a bestseller and most of the profits went to Douglass and to the abolitionist movement–Garrison was poor throughout his life and made no attempt to exploit Douglass’ story for his personal gain.  He also took quite a risk in publishing Douglass’ book and was charged with several crimes, but he faced the charges bravely. Moreover, he recognized that this publication placed Douglass in grave danger of being recognized and reclaimed by his former “masters.” Garrison solicited wealthy abolitionists for funds to enable Douglass to tour Britain on the lecture circuit in order to avoid capture.  Further, although Garrison was against schemes of ending slavery by paying off slaveholders (enabling them to profit from their sin of slaveholding) instead of compensating slaves for their free labor, he defended the morality of escaped slaves and free blacks purchasing their own or others’ freedom.  Just as in cases of kidnapping and ranson, Garrison argued, the sin is not in paying for freedom, but with those who receive such money for the crime the King James’ Bible called “man-stealing.”  Thus, against further criticisim, when he joined Douglass in England at the end of the lecture tour, Garrison helped him raise money and purchase his freedom so that he could return to America without risk of arrest under the Fugitive Slave Law.

The split between the two men began in 1848 when Douglass started his own newspaper, The Northstar instead of continuing as a lecturer for the AAS and a regular writer for The Liberator.  This cannot be seen as a racist attack on black-owned business by Garrison.  He had long been a supporter of black entrepeneurs.  He had even previously supported a black-owned abolitionist paper in New York (The Ram’s Horn).  But, while The Liberator had once had a virtual monopoly on abolitionist papers, there was now much competition and Garrison had to see The North Star as an economic rival, especially for black subscribers.  Black subscribers had kept the always-poor Garrison afloat during many hard times. Now that abolitionism was a much bigger movement, there was competition for subscriptions and The North Star’s success might come at The Liberator’s expense–or so it had to appear to Garrison.

The split continued when Douglass changed his mind over political activity.  He had started in complete agreement with Garrison that the Constitution so protected slavery that the legal overthrow of slavery would need “disunion” and a new Constitution.  But after founding The North Star, Douglass came to agree with members of the short-lived Liberty Party that the Framers had intended  the Constitutional compromises with slavery to be short-lived, that slavery was un-Constitutional, and that Congress had the power to end slavery.  He was thus a supporter of the new Republican Party (a “free soil” party) while Garrison continued to see party politics as a distraction from the work of abolishing slavery having it seen as morally abhorrent by the overwhelming majority so that the popular will would demand a new (anti-slavery) Constitution. 

The split widened when Douglass rejected his earlier pacifism to praise John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  Garrison saw Brown as being more morally right than the defenders of slavery–and struggled to show non-pacifists that Brown should be seen in the same light as the American patriots who rebelled against Britain.  But he continued to see nonviolence as a more excellent way, still.  But Garrison also, reluctantly supported the Civil War (and saw one of his own sons enlist on the Union side) and black soldiers after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  But while Garrison abandoned his absolute pacifism reluctantly and returned to the struggle for a peaceful world that would outlaw war after the end of the Civil War, Douglass moved to support the concept of “defensive” wars.  And Douglass ended up being influential with Abraham Lincoln in a way that Garrison never was.  The differences caused resentments.

But was this racism on Garrison’s part?  Perhaps.  I am among those who believe that in a thoroughly racist society like ours, it is impossible to be completely without racial prejudices.  The best we can do is to try constantly to become aware of our lingering prejudices, confront them, and attempt a life as a “recovering racist.”  I don’t think Garrison would have disagreed. He worked his entire life to see where he fell short of holiness, repent, and become more sanctified.  But I also think that some kind of split might have happened even if both men were the same color–because when students surpass mentors in fame and influence it usually creates generational rifts even if the mentor is rightly proud of the student’s success.

It is also difficult in our competitive society for two men to work so closely together, share so much, and maintain a close friendship.  The failure in Garrison and Douglass’ case is a case study in the tragedy of so many men to be able to sustain close friendships over a lifetime, but we ought also to give praise to the way they were able to sustain such a friendship for over a decade in very trying circumstances.  Outside of military service during war, we have few examples of such close friendships among heterosexual males for any length of time.  Garrison and Douglass both worked for a society that would go beyond the patriarchy that works against close male friendships, so it is sad that they did not succeed with each other–friendships should be able to survive differences inviewpoints when two kindred spirits agree on so much of the “big picture.”

Douglass was probably the deeper thinker–and it is good to see today a renewed interest in Douglass by political scientists, moral philosophers, and theologians.  But Garrison deserves more credit in all those areas than he usually gets, too–and without Garrison, would we have ever known Douglass at all?

July 29, 2010 Posted by | biographies, civil rights leaders, History, oppression, racial justice, slavery | 4 Comments

Book Review: Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery

Henry Mayer, All on Fire:  William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998; pb. ed., 2000).

Looking backward, it has seemed to many historians that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was inevitable.  From that perspective, the voices of gradualists like Henry Clay of Kentucky have seemed reasonable and historians have tended to dismiss the strong voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery as “fanatical.”  The editor and printer William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), founder of The Liberator (the first and leading abolitionist newspaper) and founder of The New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Massachussetts Anti-Slavery Society, is one of those voices too often dismissed as “shrill,” “unreasonable,” and “fanatical.”  Many of his contemporaries saw him the same way and were usually surprised that the author of editorials that thundered jeremiads against the moral complacency of his age was, in person, mild-mannered, soft spoken, and careful of personal relationships.  Henry Mayer has written a large biography of Garrison that rehabilitates him–showing that Garrison, as a professional agitator, changed the political climate and made the issue of slavery a moral priority that could not be ignored.

This is a wonderful biography that has made Garrison one of my heroes.  Born into poverty in a pious New England Baptist family (though never baptized because he couldn’t describe a conversion story in the style expected by his time), Garrison was a self-educated “mechanic,” as a printer, editor, and publisher.  When he began The Liberator in 1831 there were few if any voices calling for the immediate abolition of slavery.  All but two (John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams) presidents had been slaveowners and there were no political parties or presidential candidates who were not either apologists for the perpetual continuation of slavery or appeasers of the Southern slaveholders.  The U. S.  Constitution counted slaves as “3/5ths of persons” for census purposes, thus giving the slave states more political power than the non-slave states and forcing slaves to virtually vote for their own continued slavery.  The Missouri Compromise created a gag rule against even discussing the end of slavery in Congress (with Southern politicians constantly threatening secession if the rule was removed) and Southerners schemed to annex much of northern Mexico (which abolished slavery after independence from Spain) to spread slavery westward and keep slavery in perpetuity.  When Garrison began, the “liberal” view of reforming philanthropists was represented by the American Colonization Society which worked for gradual emancipation of slaves on condition of deportation to the U. S. colony of Liberia in West Africa (whose capital, Monrovia, is named after U.S. President James Monroe, a slaveholder and pro-colonization man).  These gradualists and colonizationists, including presidents Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Monroe, all deliberately denied any future for free blacks in the U. S. and all argued that equal citizenship was impossible because of the “degraded” condition of slaves and the inherent inferiority of persons of African descent.  To say it differently, when Garrison began his campaign for the immediate abolition of slavery and creation of a racially just and equal society, the “liberals” were all white supremacists and proponents of massive ethnic cleansing schemes–and they had the Constitution on their side.

So, Garrison, using the popular media of his day, sought not to play party politics, but to change the moral and political context in which any would be politician had to operate.  Within 5 years he could no longer be ignored or dismissed, colonization schemes were seen as the racist plans they were, and the question of abolition became THE moral issue of the day.

Garrison’s story could be seen as one of failure:  A Christian pacifist, Garrison hoped to abolish slavery by “moral suasion” that created a nonviolent social revolution that would call for a new Constitution. Instead, slavery was only abolished after a bitter civil war and even after the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution (which could only be passed and ratified because the former slave states were under military governments), white supremacy, segregation, and legal discrimination continued for another century. We have yet to see the racially just society which Garrison and his fellow abolitionists worked so hard.  The churches he hoped to purify divided over slavery along sectional lines and 11 o’clock Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the U.S.

But Mayer doesn’t present Garrison as a failure.  Instead, his is a story of how an ordinary person–not a general or politician or “captain of industry,”–can make a difference.  One person became a small group of people which grew into a movement.  The movement widened–participation by women created the first wave of feminism and the struggle for women’s suffrage and equality (which Garrison completely supported).  The movement divided over “the woman question,” over questions of political strategy (Garrison opposed voting until the Constitution was changed since voting in the current context perpetuated the flawed system, but others wanted to create abolitionist parties and candidates), over the issue of the use of violence in the struggle for justice, and much else.  Even many of the abolitionists were racially prejudiced, but Garrison and others worked to overcome this–attending black churches, staying in black homes and hosting black families in theirs, pushing against discriminatory laws.  Garrison even urged an end to all laws against interracial marriage–laws that would exist in 13 states until 1967.  If struggles continued after Garrison’s death, they built upon the struggles and victories of Garrison’s day.  His is a legacy which needs to be reclaimed for this generation.

Mayer’s book also deepens the account of U.S. history in the decades leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), showing how deeply slavery and racism were woven into the law and culture and how the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitutional compromises, the Missouri Compromise, the rebellion of Texas (and schemes of Texas annexation), the War with Mexico, the Monroe Doctrine, and, of course, the economics of cotton.  We also see Garrison intersect the lives of less-neglected figures from the wealthy Tappan brothers to Charles Finney, the Grimke Sisters, Lucretia Mott, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Clay, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass,  Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and many others.  It was Garrison who first introduced Frederick Douglass to the world and who published the first edition of Douglass autobiography–for which he has receieved little credit.  (Today, Douglass is being recovered by scholars and popular history, too, after long neglect. But Garrison has yet to get his due.)

Readers of this magnificent biography should also see the collection of primary sources, William Lloyd Garrison and the Fight Against Slavery: Selections from The Liberator, ed with and introduction by William Cain.


July 25, 2010 Posted by | biographies, book reviews, books, civil rights leaders, ethics, History, racial justice, slavery | 2 Comments

W.E.B. DuBois (23 February 1868-27 August 1963)

This is the birthday of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), one of the great public intellectuals, civil rights leaders, and political philosophers of all American history and one of the two or three greatest figures of American 20th C. 

Pan-Africanist, sociologist, historian, author, editor, DuBois (pronounced “doo-Boyss” ) was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard University (1895), and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  At the turn of the century, DuBois predicted correctly that “the color line [would be] the problem of the twentieth century.” Despite undeniable progress, it continues to be an issue into the 21st.  In the words of the historian, David Levering, “In the course of his long, turbulent, career, W.E.B.  DuBois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth century racism:  scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third world solidarity.” 

In the midst of the speeches at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, word was brought to Dr. King and the other speakers at the Lincoln Memorial that W.E.B. DuBois had just died in Ghana.

I will write a fuller biographical sketch at some other time on this blog, but I could not let this birthday pass without a mention.

February 23, 2010 Posted by | biographies, civil rights, civil rights leaders, History, race, racial justice | 3 Comments