On Nov. 7, 1837, the abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy was gunned down defending his printing press from an anti-abolitionist, proslavery mob. Nearly 180 years later, Heather Heyer lost her life standing up for what she believed was right.
It’s true that white Americans have perpetrated acts of racism throughout our nation’s history. But it is also easy to forget that there have also always been white Americans willing to fight and even sacrifice their lives for racial justice in this country. That American democracy has been watered with the blood of ordinary citizens — black and white, men and women — is a history worth remembering in these dismal times.
The tradition of interracial radicalism that Heather Heyer is an heir to goes back to the movement to abolish racial slavery. From the start, the black struggle for freedom and equality converted and acquired important white allies. As the pioneering 18th century Quaker abolitionist John Woolman wrote, “The Colour of Man avails nothing, in Matters of Right and Equity.” Abolitionist British and American women, inspired by “the young Afric damsel” Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems, took their pen to paper to write antislavery poetry and boycott the consumption of slave-grown sugar and cotton in their homes. Antislavery lawyers and politicians espoused the freedom claims of enslaved Africans to set the northern states along the path of emancipation. Indeed, Judge William Cushing of the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783 because two ordinary slaves, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman and Quok Walker, sued their masters for their freedom. But after the American Revolution, slavery in the Southern states grew and became entrenched in the nation’s economy and government.
White abolitionists who dared raise their voices against slavery in the United States quickly found their civil liberties and physical safety under threat. Anti-abolition mobs attacked black schools and churches and “promiscuous” abolitionist meetings of blacks and whites, men and women. The interracial nature of the abolition movement provoked an orgy of racist violence against abolitionists culminating in Lovejoy’s murder in 1837. Abolitionists and blacks were targets of racist violence in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. In the South, abolitionists were treated like slave rebels. Some, like Amos Dresser, suffered a public whipping in Tennessee; Charles Torrey died in a dank Maryland jail accused of assisting fugitive slaves; Jonathan Walker’s hand was branded “SS” for slave stealer by his Florida jailers, and John Brown, of course, was hanged by the state of Virginia for his militant attempt to end slavery.
James McCune Smith, a black abolitionist from New York, argued that whites who joined the abolition movement had to acquire “a black heart.” Accordingly, when William Lloyd Garrison started publishing his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator, in Boston in 1831, many assumed he was a black man because he was unsparing in his denunciation of slavery and racism, and (initially) a majority of his subscribers and writers were African American men and women. When Garrison met the astonished antislavery British parliamentarian Thomas Fowell Buxton in London who had made that assumption, he took it as the highest compliment of his work. When the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass met John Brown, he noted that Brown “though a white gentleman, is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery.”
During the Civil Rights movement, those white ministers, rabbis, and students, who joined the black struggle for freedom and were willing to put themselves in harm’s way along with African Americans demonstrated the power of that radical tradition. The murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, black and white, Jewish and Christian, in 1964 helped open the eyes of the nation to the racial atrocity of Jim Crow and disfranchisement. After the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, one is forced to ask how many more deaths will it take for Americans to listen to, as Abraham Lincoln put it, to “the better angels of our nature.” One can only hope that the beautiful soul of Heather Heyer will conquer the hate spewed from places high and low today.
The abolitionist legacy of interracial activism is as embedded in American history as the sorry history of racial oppression. When the right wing demonstrators shouted “race traitor” to the counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, they were correct: To reject white supremacy is to be a friend to all of humanity, an idea that is as old as abolition. Heyer, her friends recall, was reduced to tears when she read about the injustices around her. Like the abolitionists of yore, she seemed to deeply empathize with the plight of the oppressed, and like them, she deserves to be remembered and emulated.