From American Experience Films comes another must-watch TV special — this one based on the lives of five early civil rights advocates whose actions forced the nation to look critically at the slavery issue and helped push the South into secession. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown are profiled in “The Abolitionists,” a three-part series that begins Tuesday, Jan. 8 on PBS and continues for the next two Tuesdays.
This is gripping stuff, the kind of television in which the acting, setting and lighting are so perfect as to be invisible and which holds the viewer transfixed for a full hour. It isn’t pretty, but then, slavery wasn’t pretty, either. There are wrenching scenes of a slave mother forcibly separated from her children on the auction block and a female slave whose hands are bound and attached to a ceiling hook while she is whipped.
The five abolitionists each fought against slavery in a different way, and their stories are beautifully intertwined in this series.
Douglass was an escaped slave who became a famous author and speaker. Garrison wrote and published the stridently anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator. Grimke, the daughter of a prominent slave-holding family in South Carolina, spoke publicly against slavery and was forced to move to the North, where she continued her campaign. Stowe was a novelist and a religion writer but is best known for her deeply controversial “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book that brought the horrors of slavery to an international audience. Brown used violence to silence slavery proponents and eventually was hanged for his leadership in a raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry meant to supply slaves and others with guns.
For their fervent beliefs, backed by action, the five were labeled radicals and agitators and were threatened with beatings, imprisonment and death, but they each continued the struggle much as civil rights leaders later did in the 1960s.
“The Abolitionists” should appeal to a wide audience, including those who are already knowledgeable about the Civil War as well as those who are new to the subject.