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Monday, June 16, 2008

The American Abolitionist Movement

The abolitionist movement, which represented the earliest days of the American Civil Rights Movement, succeeded in every northern state by 1804, although there were still at least a dozen “permanent apprentices” listed in the 1860 census. Three northern organizations advocating this reform were the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, and the New York Manumission Society.

This latter group was run by powerful Federalists John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The Federalists opposed State’s Rights, arguing for federal legislation abolishing slavery. New York finally abolished slavery, gradually, starting in 1799, making this the largest emancipation of American slaves in history before 1863. New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery, in 1804.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 agreed to allow the federal government to abolish the international slave trade, and by that time, all the existing states but Georgia had passed laws abolishing or severely limiting the slave trade. Georgia finally passed similar laws in 1798 - and the importation of slaves into the USA was officially abolished on New Year’s Day in 1808. This was a major move in the direction of abolition.

However, in the 1830s, the Postmaster General refused to allow the U.S. mails to deliver abolition pamphlets to the South. Northern teachers suspected of anti-slavery “tendencies” were expelled from the South, and abolitionist literature was banned in those states. Southerners were claiming that incidents like John Brown’s attempt at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 to start a slave uprising was proof northerners were conspiring against them to cause war through slave rebellions.

The North, simply put, was dead set against the South’s prevailing attitudes about slavery. Eric Foner once stated: “Northerners came to view slavery as the very antithesis of the good society, as well as a threat to their own fundamental values and interests.” However, northern conservatives feared the migration of a large number of freemen into the North, as they tended to accept lower pay. They were being seen, like today’s illegal Mexican-American workers, as “undercutting prevailing wages.” It was feared that former slaves would cause deep pay cuts for all American workers, especially white ones.

In spite of such difficulties, one white abolitionist, Massachusetts’s Abby Kelley Foster, became an “ultra,” advocating not only abolition but full civil rights for all black people. An agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society, Foster, known usually as Abby Kelley, thought that free slaves should colonize the new African nation of Liberia. She also recruited Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone, other American feminist leaders, to the early Civil Rights Movement. Kelley, who inspired other young women to be known as “Abby Kelleyites,” often shared her platform with ex-slaves - despite the additional scorn this entailed. "I rejoice to be identified with the despised people of color. If they are to be despised, so ought their advocates to be,” was one of her famous quotes.

Another well-known abolitionist was the wizened but charming black woman known as Sojourner Truth. Her first speaking engagement was with Abby Kelley. Truth originally had the Dutch slave name Isabella Baumfree, but changed her name because “the Spirit calls me.” She wasn’t much for the white man’s religion, though, and frequently spoke against slavery and the mental picture of black women being “unladylike” and subhuman. She was born into slavery in New York, enduring frequent beatings at the hands of her white masters and mistresses.

At one point in time, she was on one of her many “sojourns,” or journeys, and a streetcar run by a white male conductor wouldn’t stop to pick her up, refusing her as a passenger. She bravely ran along the track and leapt into the path of the streetcar, gauging the distance exactly right, making the conductor stop for her. Her most famous speech was the simply put, “Ain’t I a Woman?” where she also gave us the following quote, revised from her 19th century dialect:

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.” Maybe that reference is where Dr. King got the idea of making “valleys into hills and hills into valleys,” but it’s also a Biblical reference. I’ll tell you a bit more about the origins of American black religious faith and how they led to Dr. King being a minister toward the end of this section.

Anyway, this quote from Truth’s popular speech was spoken at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, and her recurrent theme was probably based on an incident where a heckler in the audience had called her a man. She proudly opened her blouse, revealing her breasts, a typically bold move on her part which likely led to “Ain’t I a Woman?” I guess even your enemies can help you be productive, as in the case in 1960’s Birmingham, where local black civil rights leaders said that Police Commissioner “Bull” O’Connor and his violent anti-black tactics were “helping the Movement,” due to all the media attention they were getting at the time.

The Catholic faith doesn’t tend to exalt the poor and their elevation, which is the general black meaning of “turning things around,” as much as the black version of Protestantism does. That may explain the general Catholic lack of sympathy for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s programs at first. Dr. King was the presumed head of the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s.

But for Catholics, there was ample praise of Jesus’ faith in the resurrection of the spirit and his attendant faith in the spirituality of all people. Blacks at the time of slavery and in much later American history continued a tendency toward religion that influenced their culture and entire way of philosophy and thought immeasurably, but Truth was probably spiritually-oriented.

She didn’t like white men much, or their male-oriented religions. She organized white and black feminists alike to oppose slavery through abolition, but that and colonizing Liberia were not the only actions taken against slavery. Also, throughout American history, there have been movements to attempt the return of African-Americans to the Motherland.

Through the 1820s and 1830s, the American Colonization Society (ACS) kept proposing to stop slavery by returning to Africa, a movement which was broadly supported by both whites and blacks. They saw it as a preferable alternative to emancipation, and Black Nationalist pioneer Marcus Garvey would also start a similar movement. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, opening a branch in Harlem, New York in 1916.

The UNIA was intended “to promote the spirit of race pride,” and was an attempt to cause worldwide unity among all black people, establishing the greatness of their African heritage. Garvey appealed to the black lower classes and rejected any ideals or notions of racial integration. He was certain that blacks could not secure their rights in countries like the USA, where they were a racial minority group, so he began a “back to Africa” movement, and he was considered the most influential black leader of the early 1920s.

However, in the early 1800s there was a series of small attempts to plant settlements on the coast of West Africa, where most of the slaves had been originally captured, and the colony of Liberia was established circa 1821-1822. In the next four decades, thousands of American former slaves settled there. They declared independence in 1847, although not many had survived the move, as they had succumbed to local diseases. The abolition movement caused support for the colony to fade quickly, but the new Liberians ruled their country until the bloody military coup of 1980 by army personnel who assassinated President William R. Tolbert.

Therefore, due to the lack of effective other methods for handling this major American issue, the work of the abolitionists is what finally managed to help end slavery. However, in spite of multiple efforts on the parts of many, it took just about forever to get the South to agree on this. Their intense stubbornness is what led to the continuing hatred and racism ongoing throughout 1960’s Birmingham, leading to the tragic deaths of many black children and the continuous bombings of dozens of peaceful citizens’ homes.

Read the next article in this series, “White Concerns over Racial Differences” and the other articles in this long article series about why racism was and is so prevalent in the American South.

This article is from the "Background: Why Was the South Racist, Anyway?" section from P.L. Ryan's wonderful new forthcoming book, "The Boys of Birmingham," about the FBI investigation in Birmingham, Alabama of Dr. King's assassination. Ryan is the daughter of the lead agent in charge, who actually tracked down James Earl Ray, Dr. King's killer, securing his arrest and conviction. Look out for "The Boys of Birmingham" as it's set to be republished in April of 2011.

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