Monday, February 1, 2016

Black History Month: William Lloyd Garrison

"I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD."

With those words, on January 1, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison threw down the gauntlet.  

He opened the year of 1831 with the first issue of The Liberator, a newsletter that came out of New England.  The cause he was so earnest about, and from which he wouldn't retreat? The end of slavery.  

It is said that "the pen is mightier that the sword", and although William Lloyd Garrison wasn't using a literal pen in publishing The Liberator, his "penned" words helped fight and win the battle to end slavery in the United States.

He was born December 10, 1805 in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  When he was three, his father abandoned the family, and Garrison and his siblings were raised by his mother.  At 13, he began an apprenticeship as a writer and editor under the editor of the Newburyport Herald.  Two other attempts, at shoemaking and cabinetmaking, had ended in failure. Young Garrison's true gift lay not in physical labor, but in the use of words.

He was 20 when he finished his apprenticeship, and he bought a newspaper, renamed it the Newburyport Free Press, and started writing. The paper went out of business after six months, and Garrison then moved to Boston.  

While working as printer and editor, Garrison met Benjamin Lundy, editor of the Genius of Emancipation. Lundy was a Quaker, and he'd been raised to oppose violence and the enslavement of others.  Lundy was 19 and living in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) when he became aware of slavery's brutality, and determined to be a part of ending slavery. 

Lundy offered Garrison a job at his paper, and Garrison accepted.  The job was Garrison's initiation into the abolitionist movement.

As part of Garrison's involvement with abolition, he'd joined the American Colonization Society.  He believed, at first, that the group's goal--to have blacks move to the west coast of Africa--was a worthy cause.  But the longer he remained a member, the more he realized what the group really wanted.  They wanted fewer free slaves in the United States. Encouraging free blacks to go to Africa, Garrison concluded, would only support slavery.  

So he left the American Colonization Society and started his own paper.  That paper, The Liberator, was responsible for Garrison's reputation as an abolitionist.  His goal:  show people that slavery is immoral.  Once they see slavery is immoral, they'll join you in helping you end it.  Garrison needed plenty of help in his effort, and one source of that help was free African-Americans, who made up about 75 percent of his readers.  

Garrison paid a heavy price for his earnestness and his insistence on being heard. 

In 1833, Garrison founded the American Antislavery Society, dedicated to the cause of abolition.  But since he was a pacifist, and he wasn't willing to take political action to achieve his goals, several people left his group and formed their own organization.

On one occasion, in Boston, he was dragged through the streets and almost killed.

Someone placed a bounty of $4,000 on his head.  

In 1854, he burned a copy of the US Constitution because it allowed slavery.  He also wanted the Union to be dissolved, rather than saved; and called for the North to secede from the United States and sever all ties with the South.

But he continued to publish, and to speak, and to be heard.  Thirty-five years later, after 1,820 issues, Garrison published the final issue of The Liberator in December, 1865, proclaiming "my vocation as an abolitionist is ended".  He hadn't missed a single issue. He'd lived long enough to see the 13th Amendment passed, outlawing slavery forever.  

Garrison swore that he would not equivocate, he would not excuse, he would not retreat, and he would be heard.  

And in the end, he was.

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