Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rights Roots

For those of us who lived through it, the narrative is familiar.  The Civil Rights movement grew through the confrontations in the South in the 1950s and 1960s over rights guaranteed and affirmed by the Supreme Court such as voting rights and school integration, and generally the end of public segregation in the South.

 Eventually, through federal legislation, many of these rights were won, but there also resulted a realignment of political parties, in which the previously solid Democratic South moved towards state's rights Republicans, while African Americans moved more definitely towards the Democratic Party which had supported these rights.

In the later 1960s, the unified Civil Rights movement splintered, and a new movement arose called black liberation.  The burgeoning antiwar movement, plus the example of black liberation, seemed instrumental in creating the women's liberation movement in the early 70s, with its emphasis on sexism and equal rights.

But of course these weren't the first such American movements, and in a way they were recapitulations of  a previous series of movements in the 19th century.

These movements are described in The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha (Yale U. Press.)  It was reviewed by James M. McPherson in the New York Review of Books (October 27, 2016.)  They happened when slavery was still legal and practiced in the US South.  The issue was abolition of slavery, and an international abolition movement arose as early as America's founding.

The abolition movement that ended slavery in England and its colonies, and finally in the US North, began in the 18th century and continued into the 1830s.  It was a largely based on the immorality of slavery.  Quakers and members of other religions were earliest abolitionists. By the 1830s it was a mass movement.

Opposition was fierce. Abolitionists in the South were assaulted and imprisoned.  But while mobs broke into post offices to destroy abolitionist pamphlets in the South, mobs in the North attacked abolitionist lecturers, smashed printing presses, nearly lynched the most prominent advocate in the country and did murder abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois.

"These mobs consisted mainly of lower-class whites who feared that emancipation would loose a horde of freed slaves to come north and compete with them for jobs and social equality," McPherson notes.  But wealthy men doing business in the South also participated.

Then as the 1830s ended the abolitionist movement entered a new phase, and became part of the political process.  With the more radical and uncompromising voices keeping up the pressure, abolitionist politicians gradually but firmly prevailed in taking over a new political party in the 1860s, the Republicans.  It was this support that enabled President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Authors Henry Bibb, activist Sojourner Truth, poet Frances Ellen Watkins
Sinha makes some cogent points often lost to simpler historical accounts.  First, that the abolitionists weren't all well-meaning white people.  Black voices were crucial to establishing credibility.  "Sinha has rescued scores of black writers, lecturers, preachers, organizations, and activists from undeserved obscurity."  Lawsuits and petitions by slaves were instrumental in ridding the North of slavery.

By the second wave of abolition, the movement was interracial--"the first genuinely integrated movement in American history...The prominent place of blacks sustained the movement's goal of equal rights as well as abolition."

The dividing line between the first and second wave of abolitionists was women's rights.  The early movement was led by men but peopled largely by women, and women got fed up with it.  Noted one, "the investigation of the rights of the slave has led me to a better understanding of my own."

Sinha concludes that "the nineteenth-century woman rights movement, as it was called, grew out of abolition."  That movement officially began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

As President Obama said often, the struggle for rights and for justice is a long process, with peaks and vales, steps forward and steps back,  common purpose and common forgetting.  So without knowing how or meaning it, sure enough, it often rhymes.  Burying the history in comforting platitudes may obscure this.  But accounts like this bring it alive again.

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