William Lloyd Garrison, a 19th-century white abolitionist, was, in today’s language, an accomplice in the struggle for Black liberation. The biography All on Fire, by Henry Mayer, tells the story of Garrison’s role in the crusade against slavery. As an activist, he railed against the white supremacist ideas built into our nation’s founding. As a pacifist, he worked to subvert the violence of slavery through methods that did not rely on violence themselves. Garrison fused those two values of anti-racism and non-violence into a single cause, wielding language as a weapon in a battle for America’s soul. He stood with his Black colleagues and amplified their voices, but also at times struggled to step back from his central role and give the spotlight to those who were the victims of racism. As such, he modeled for modern white people both the promises and the pitfalls of accompliceship in a struggle for racial equity.

When he was 25 years old in 1830, Garrison founded his newspaper, The Liberator, as a manifesto of our nation’s first civil rights movement, abolitionism, which extended far beyond the simple demand for the end of slavery as an institution. Garrison and other abolitionists, Black and white, called for a moral transformation of the American spirit by demanding equal citizenship for all people. Week after week, he published the horrible truths about slavery, laying plain for white American eyes what was happening in their names. But he also made clear how white Northerners undermined the rights of supposedly free African-Africans living in the North. In addition, he spoke out for the land rights of Native Americans and the voting rights of women. He “fused the politics of radicalism with the language of love to provoke confrontations with oppressive authority in the name of a noble fellowship of equals.” In doing so, he offended and pushed away many white moderates who may have supported the gradual emancipation of the slaves without their attaining political rights. Garrison would not stand for half measures: he believed that the only solution was emancipation and full rights because he espoused the equality of Black, white, and Native American, man and woman.

In addition to publishing his newspaper, Garrison developed an infrastructure for abolitionist action, helping to found the American Anti-Slavery Society and gaining support for the movement by delivering numerous speeches. In one early speech, he accused his audience, “Suppose that… the slaves should suddenly become white. Would you shut your eyes upon their sufferings and calmly talk of constitutional limitations?” Later, Garrison publicly burned a copy of the US Constitution to demonstrate that it was an inherently racist document. It specified that slaves were not and could never be citizens, yet were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation, which made our nation’s founding dependent on a racist compromise. Garrison “held aloft a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Pronouncing it ‘the source and parent of the other atrocities,’ he struck another match and watched in bright-eyed satisfaction as the paper burst into flames. ‘So perish all compromises with tyranny,’ Garrison intoned.”

In his publishing and speaking, Garrison collaborated with many abolitionist colleagues, Black and white. After Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, Garrison supported Douglass’s start as an abolitionist speaker, and the two men developed a working rapport as they gave rousing speeches around the country to raise awareness about the moral outrages of slavery. Garrison also published Douglass’s slave narrative. But over time, Douglass rightly wanted to deepen his influence in the abolition movement, in part by starting his own newspaper. Garrison, however, did not support this effort, ostensibly because there wasn’t an audience to support an additional abolitionist publication. But one has to wonder, given Garrison’s own publishing career, whether he was concerned about Douglass competing in his field. This started a feud between the men, with both attacking the motives of the other. This argument descended to its lowest point when Garrison publicly doubted that Douglass’s experiences as a fugitive slave gave him any special knowledge about slavery or status within the abolitionist movement. This was a moment where Garrison’s ego overtook his empathy and his implicit bias took over. Today, we might describe Garrison’s attack as a racial micro-aggression, or simply just racial aggression, and we might be surprised that someone as deeply invested in racial justice as Garrison would do such a thing. But we have numerous examples from social justice organizations, and if we liberal white people examine our own actions, I believe we’ll each have numerous examples from our own lives, of white people intellectually committed to racial justice who still struggle to leave space for people of color to lead.

Garrison embodied and drove a vision of racial justice that contradicted the white supremacist assumptions of our nation’s founding. Mayer writes, “Because his vision was rooted in the idea of racial equality, it was socially more radical than any American had dared propose before him, and because his vision was rooted in the idea of political transformation, it was politically more radical… than any process contemplated by the Framers.” Despite his dedication to abolition and equality, Garrison still found it difficult in his relationship with Douglass to give the younger, Black man the space to step forward into his own leadership. As such, Garrison gives those of us who see themselves as white accomplices in today’s struggle for racial equity many questions to ponder. What are we willing to sacrifice in this struggle? Which white friends, relatives, and colleagues might we alienate? How do we maintain our strength in this battle? But also, how do we advance the fight by amplifying the voices of Black and Brown leaders, rather than through taking the spotlight ourselves? Garrison shows us that these pressing questions are not recent ones. They have been with us since the founding of this nation, and Garrison, with all his vision and imperfections, remains an impetus for us to explore the answers.

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3 thoughts on “A 19th-century model for white allyship

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