[Marxism] Well Before Lincoln, Enemies of Slavery
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Thu Jan 10 08:05:41 MST 2013
NY Times January 7, 2013
Well Before Lincoln, Enemies of Slavery
By NEIL GENZLINGER
Abraham Lincoln drew Steven Spielberg’s cinematic attention, but Lincoln
was still a store clerk when William Lloyd Garrison published the first
issue of the newspaper The Liberator in 1831, vowing to “not retreat a
single inch” in his campaign to eradicate slavery.
“The Abolitionists,” a three-part “American Experience” that begins
Tuesday night on PBS, is a reminder for our noisy, instant-news present
that the great movements of history, whether for civil rights or
equality for women or the rights of people with disabilities, take
decades to mature, and that presidents and other politicians are often
among the last to board the bandwagon.
The program, so rich in well-staged re-enactments that it is more
docudrama than documentary, traces the abolitionist movement across
almost 40 tumultuous years, a period of colliding worldviews that makes
our current polarization seem slight.
The focus is on five prominent figures with a lifelong dedication to the
cause: Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher
Stowe and John Brown. That oversimplifies things considerably, of course
— it takes more than five people to move a mountain — but the principals
are well chosen in that they represent a range of approaches as to how
best to rid the country of slavery. Garrison, at least in the beginning,
thought words could do the job; Brown preferred the sword and the gun.
The first installment looks at the 1820s and ’30s, when the abolitionist
movement coalesced and began to realize just what it was up against.
Antislavery leaflets in the South were met with violent protests, which
was no surprise, but Garrison and others were taken aback when ugly
opposition also materialized in the North.
“The mobs shattered every abolitionist assumption: that righteousness
would triumph over evil; that their fellow Americans would listen to
reason; that their Northern neighbors would support the abolitionist
cause,” the program’s narrator, Oliver Platt, relates.
Part 2 explores how war with Mexico in the mid-1840s accelerated the
debate by raising the question of whether territory gained by the United
States in that conflict would be slave or free. Douglass (portrayed in
re-enactments by Richard Brooks of “Law & Order”) emerges as a major
player, recruited by Garrison to speak across the North. His appearances
put a face on what for many had been a theoretical discussion.
“Many of the audience members had never, ever seen a slave, let alone
been to the slave South,” the historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar says. “So
to have a person like Douglass gave the antislavery cause teeth. It gave
it authenticity. It gave it a new voice.”
Meanwhile, Garrison (portrayed by Neal Huff) was beginning to despair
that political bodies or other entrenched institutions would ever act
against slavery, and his writings and lectures became more impatient.
The ultimate champion of radical action, though, was Brown (T. Ryder
Smith), who, as Part 3 begins, is killing slavery advocates in Kansas
and then setting his sights on the armory at Harpers Ferry. In the
program’s most evocative scene, he meets Douglass at Chambersburg, Pa.,
where Douglass tries to talk him out of the raid that would help push
the nation to civil war.
“It will kill you, and it will serve no purpose,” Douglass says. “It
will be a blood bath.”
To which Brown replies, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no
remission of sin, Douglass.”
Lincoln turns up late, and in this telling he is a bit of a waffler,
trying some appeasement strategies before eventually, 150 years ago this
past New Year’s Day, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. By this
point in the program, the case has been made that war was the only way
this defining issue would be resolved. But it was a long journey to get
to that point, full of soul-searching, reasoned debate and
not-so-reasoned violence. Food for thought for our contentious age, when
discussion of perfectly solvable problems seems to turn inflammatory so
On PBS stations on Tuesday and Sunday nights (check local listings).
Produced by Apograph Productions Inc. for American Experience. Written,
directed and produced by Rob Rapley; Sharon Grimberg, executive
producer; Mark Samels, executive producer for American Experience; John
Chimples and Aljernon Tunsil, editors; Tim Cragg, cinematographer;
Oliver Platt, narrator.
WITH: Richard Brooks (Frederick Douglass), Neal Huff (William Lloyd
Garrison), Jeanine Serralles (Angelina Grimké), Kate Lyn Sheil (Harriet
Beecher Stowe) and T. Ryder Smith (John Brown).
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