Thursday, June 08, 2017

Our template for home-grown social movements

It was fascinating to read The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition by UConn historian Manisha Sinha during the same months when I was studying Black Reconstruction. There are similarities: both are monumental, weighty tomes, over 700 pages; both center black perspectives and the black actors in historical events who white-oriented histories have slighted; both recover and make available voluminous contemporary materials which enrich our reading of our collective past.

But Sinha's volume aims at a very different objective: DuBois presented and framed a snapshot of a pivotal, historically brief, moment. She is writing the sweeping story of the development of abolitionism as a century long (and beyond) social movement. So her grand volume is a record of shifting outlooks and actors, evolving innovations in tactics and strategies, controversies within the movement, some more meaningful than others, but all leading to grudging emancipation and formal citizenship for black men by 1873. It is in recovering these ups and downs, steps and missteps, that her history is most interesting because, as she concludes:

...For American radicals ever since, abolition has remained a model of activism, a template of a social movement.

I encountered literally dozens of new fact, tales, and events in that narrative, some small, some large, many familiar in structure if different in specifics from my own life in progressive social movements. Here I'll share some representative but brief samples of what I learned.
  • The U.S. revolution set the stage for some progress toward freedom for blacks -- progress they started toward themselves.

    Enslaved African Americans helped initiate the first emancipation in the Atlantic world. In 1781, Bett, also known as Mumbet, and a fellow slave named Brom sued their master, Col. John Ashley, a prominent revolutionary soldier in western Massachusetts, for their freedom. ... In court Mumbet insisted on giving an abolitionist interpretation to the new state constitution. She had heard that it set all slaves free. ... Membet's freedom suit, along with that of another slave, Quok Walker, led to the judicial abolition slavery in Massachusetts.

  • But we cannot forget that the Founders' compromises also framed abolitionists' ongoing critique of the new Republic.

    If the revolution engendered black anti-slavery protest, it also made African Americans subject its premises to criticism. The New England freedom petitions [organized by free blacks] laid the foundation of black abolitionism and its preoccupation with exposing American republicanism. They did not simply appropriate revolutionary ideology, but critically engaged it to highlight their plight.

  • The abolitionist critique of necessity encompassed both racial and economic equality.

    The [early 19th century] abolition movement bucked the trend that defined the American Republic as a white man's country. One of the main aims of early abolition societies was to seek "relief of free negroes" and to "improve the condition of the free black population." ...Abolitionists plans for the protection and improvement of blacks included securing citizenship for them. ... Early abolitionists visualized a better position for free blacks in society than as menial laborers ... Racial paternalism was not the only rationale for abolitionists' concern with black improvement. ... [They] claimed that making free black people model citizens ... would hasten the demise of slavery.

  • According to Sinha, by 1830, free northern black populations were creating independent anti-slavery societies.

    ... parading and carnivals in black communities gradually gave way to institutional organization. This was not just black leaders aspiring to middle class respectability but the growing sophistication of newly free black communities. ... black institutions bred community autonomy and independent abolitionism.

  • After 1830, the social movement passed through several decades of struggles over the most correct, or most possible, or most effective strategies of abolition. "Immediatism" -- the call for uncompensated freedom NOW -- eventually overcame gradualism. Support for colonization of freed blacks to Africa or of chosen emigration to free black Haiti or to Canada repeatedly roiled the movement. In a time of waves of religiously infused moral reformism, black churches split from white churches and white churches themselves divided along sectional lines, spawning southern pro-slavery branches. Some anti-slavery societies came up with tactics that may seem familiar: supporters were urged to buy only "free produce," calling the fruits of slave labor "stolen goods."
  • Like most historians of abolition, Sinha accords white activist and newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison a highly important role in advancing the struggle -- but insists

    What distinguished Garrisonians from the previous generations of abolitionists was how firmly Garrisonianism's roots lay in black abolitionism. ...Garrison took abolitionism in a new direction organizationally and ideologically. ... Four hundred and fifty of the five hundred subscribers to the Liberator in its first year were African Americans, sustaining the young editor with their financial, moral and political support. In turn, Garrison published their speeches and letters, proceedings of local meetings and national conventions ...

    ... Although denying charges of inciting rebellions, Garrison clearly aligned himself with slave resistance. ... Slave rebels, Garrison judged, deserved no more censure than the revolutionary generation of contemporary European freedom fighters most Americans admired. ...

    In calling for the immediate, uncompensated (to slaveholders) abolition of slavery and black rights, Garrison gave the movement its programmatic clarity. ... [He used] the tactic of 'moral suasion' or persuasion ... geared to awakening public opinion or slavery and racism.

  • Conventional school histories of abolitionism neglect an essential truth of the long struggle: for the two decades before Confederate secession, this was a war. Even the few white abolitionists from the professional classes were in danger of being "being stoned, imprisoned, and mobbed" according to black minister Theodore S. Wright. Black abolitionists risked lynching or kidnapping into southern slavery.

    The American Anti-Slavery Society issued an elaborate set of directives ... that instructed its agents how to face down mobs ...

    In the 1850s in Kansas, the war was literal, forming abolitionist extremist John Brown's determination to free slaves by raiding the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859.
  • Concurrently, escaped slaves published hundreds of captivity and escape narratives in the north, communicating the horrors of bondage. Frederick Douglass's 1845 best seller

    [served as the] iconic narrative [to which] belongs the credit for making the slave's indictment of slavery the most effective weapon in the abolitionist arsenal and popularizing the genre.

    Douglass' work and skillful navigation of movement controversies made him one of black people's main interlocutors with Lincoln when war came.
We've seen some large progressive mobilizations lately, but the scale and duration of the largely extra-electoral abolition campaign is not something we routinely learn.

... antislavery societies sent over six hundred thousand petitions with nearly two million signatures to Congress and state legislatures ... By 1838, the AASS had over 1000 auxiliaries with around 100,000 members ... Second-wave abolition ... was a mass movement. New modes of communication, the penny press, the mail, and democratic fund-raising proved crucial in the formation of the movement, The AASS raised over forty thousand dollars in 1838 from members as diverse as a revolutionary soldier in Maine, a four-year-old boy, and a 'colored woman' who sold apples in the streets of Boston. ... Antislavery societies also disseminated antislavery cards, poems, broadsides, and wafers with popular abolitionist sayings. Few of their opponents could match the sheer volume of abolitionist handicrafts.

... Contrary to conventional wisdom, abolition was hardly a middle-class affair. Though African Americans formed its core constituency, abolitionism spread among white men and women in the North. ... Abolitionists did not belong to a cultural and intellectual elite either. While they attracted the support of a few prominent figures, abolitionists' uncompromising activism differentiated them from the northern political and cultural establishment. ... Farmers, mechanics, and artisans formed its base. Most of the signatures in urban abolition petitions were those of workingmen ...

To be an abolitionist was to adopt a counter-culture, right up through the 1860 secession crisis. Sinha points out that most white abolitionists came to their convictions very young -- and as they aged and had their own children, they passed their culture on through "juvenile branches" of anti-slavery societies which used children's books teaching anti-racism.

Sinha asks "why abolitionist never really became popular and have come down to us as perpetual naysayers"? She concludes that to persist through decades of repression, they nurtured and clung to their counter-culture:

they continued to focus on the shortcomings of the present to prepare the way for the achievements of the future. They refused to be satisfied by the successes of their movement and warned of the dangers of looking ahead.

In this, of course, post-Civil War history proved them right, as the movement for full racial equality splintered over votes for women and progressive forces failed to both unite around and affirm the emerging labor revolt against maturing industrial capital. The leading edge of progress moved elsewhere, away from confronting white supremacy. Yet abolitionism remains the template for social movements for justice in this country. Much to ponder there.
I wish I could give this book an unhesitating endorsement, but unhappily, I can't quite. It is totally worth reading and studying -- and yet one wishes that Ms. Sinha had had a fierce editor. It could probably be at least one third less bulky, yet still accomplish its mission to re-center the myriad contributions to abolition by thousands of actors, mostly black, who too many histories have left out of the story. It is not smoothly written, as I discovered while trying to excerpt quotes for this post.

Nonetheless I am very glad to have made the effort to study it.

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