Leading up to the annual William Lloyd Garrison lecture, we asked “Friends of William Lloyd Garrison” to talk about “Why Garrison? Why Now?”
This week the author is Friend of William Lloyd Garrison, Bill Quigley
Garrison is acutely relevant to divisiveness among Americans today, particularly our differences over vexing social problems and conditions produced by the pseudo-scientific concept that colors, still, our 21st-century view of humanity: race. However one views “DEI” initiatives (meaning diversity, equity, and inclusion) in schools, businesses, and many other organizations today, and however one feels about claims of persistent “white privilege,” “white supremacy,” “systemic racism,” and/or “white fragility,” our preoccupation with “race” seems undeniable. Certainly I can’t help but be hyper-aware that I’m seen as a white man. So, to some extent, my interest in Garrison—a white man who protested the enslavement of black people in America—is personal.
More important is Garrison’s historical relevance to America today. We’re no less preoccupied with racial differences among us than were Garrison and folks of his time in America, Northerners as well as Southerners. Garrison, a white American male and devout Christian, protested the enslavement of black men, women, and children as sinfully immoral, and he worked together with black abolitionists, but all the while advocating the American Colonization Society’s racist enterprise to deport freed slaves “back to Africa.” Neither had Garrison entirely freed himself from the shackles of “race.”
And Garrison speaks in other ways, as well, to the vexation of “race” in his time and ours. He and the American Anti-Slavery Society provided the first platform for the brilliant and eloquent fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, but Garrison and Douglass soon after fell out—in part, no doubt, over Garrison’s latent assumption of racial differences between “whites” and “blacks.” And Douglass had also grown to disavow the incongruity of Garrison’s disapproval of lawful reform efforts (scorning them as consorting with evil) and his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to slavery. Douglass invoked Garrison’s words in his 1852 4th of July Address to the Rochester (NY) Female Anti-Slavery Society, one of the greatest of American speeches: “Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion…,” Douglass said, “‘I will not equivocate; I will not excuse’; I will use the severest language I can command” to fight the infernal institution of slavery and all of its handmaidens, particularly the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. The next month, though, speaking at a Free Soil Party convention in Pittsburgh, Douglass defended violent resistance to enslavement: “The only way to make the Fugitive Slave Law a dead letter is to make half a dozen more dead kidnappers,” he said, adding that “slaveholders not only forfeit their right to liberty, but to life itself.” Militancy, though, did not sit with Garrison. He spurned violence, believing that racial slavery and the political system that supported it ought to be undone by nonviolent “moral suasion”—until Southerners seceded from the United States with force of arms, when he acceded to the war against that rebellion.
Are we not now feeling reverberations of matters that divided and troubled Garrison and his fellow Americans?