Abolitionist's words echo through time

November 02, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

One hundred and 33 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," a young William Lloyd Garrison composed a letter from a Baltimore jail that strongly foreshadowed King's.

Garrison, imprisoned for libeling the owner of a ship that carried slaves, wrote: "The court may shackle the body, but it cannot pinion the mind."

The abolitionist's prophet-like words mirrored King's in their impatience with the status quo and their spiritual underpinnings: "Everyone who comes into the world should do something to repair its moral desolation, and to restore its pristine loveliness; and he who does not assist, but slumbers away his life in idleness, defeats one great purpose of his creation."

The striking parallels between Garrison and King, and the pivotal importance of Garrison's work from 1829 to 1830 on the Genius, a Baltimore-based anti-slavery newspaper, may never have come to light but for historian Henry Mayer's intellectual and emotional curiosity.

Mayer, an independent historian, is a nonfiction finalist in this year's National Book Awards for "All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of American Slavery" (St. Martins, $32.50). The winner will be announced Nov. 18.

The book exhaustively illuminates this obscure Baltimore chapter in Garrison's life, as well as the crusader's subsequent 35 years as editor of the weekly Liberator, the Boston-based anti- slavery journal he published until ratification of the 13th Amendment ending slavery in 1865.

Mayer came to Garrison, previously treated as a historical footnote, after writing a biography of Patrick Henry and wondering why the Constitution was silent on slavery. Garrison had once burned the Constitution for that very reason. As Mayer learned more about the uncompromising agitator, he realized he had played a much more critical role in the anti-slavery movement than previously thought.

Garrison's brief six months in Baltimore, and his jailing there, was "pretty central in his formation," Mayer says by phone from his home in Berkeley, Calif. Like King's, Garrison's beliefs were only made fiercer by incarceration.

Mayer found patterns in the two men's religious convictions, tactics and dependence on a community of like-minded souls aware that their cause was "larger than themselves."

Garrison's path "deepened my gut feeling that the history of abolition is really the history of the civil rights movement," Mayer says.

As the civil rights movement grew out of segregation, the abolition movement grew out of the peculiar institution. Both efforts turned on building a large coalition of protesters who "gradually changed public opinion," he says.

Garrison came to Baltimore in 1829 to assist Benjamin Lundy, a Quaker who learned the printing trade in order to publish the "Genius of Universal Emancipation," a one-man anti-slavery campaign.

At the time, Baltimore offered a fascinating glimpse of the hardships facing blacks, be they enslaved or free. It "was the largest commercial city on the slaveholding Eastern Seaboard," Mayer writes, and yet, free blacks outnumbered slaves 3-to-1.

By poring through archival accounts -- newspapers, city directories, travelers' accounts, even the minutes of the board of governors of the city jail -- Mayer found fresh details that render Baltimore's sepia-hued past into living color.

In Fells Point, Old Town and other neighborhoods, black and white working people lived "jumbled together on unpaved blocks in narrow two-story frame houses that were sometimes no bigger than one square box set upon another." Garrison boarded with two Quakers near Sharp Street, "within the black community and came to know its people and its perils at first hand."

By judiciously plucking passages from the "Genius," Mayer also supplies a visceral understanding of the prevailing mercenary sentiments of the time: Garrison "chastised the other Baltimore papers for accepting advertisements about the local slave auctions, reasoning that as 'accomplices to the crime' those editors were as guilty of 'grasping avarice' as the slave traders whose money they accepted."

Mayer took particular care in relating the libel episode, even looking up the names of jurors to further understand the racist climate that allowed Garrison to be indicted in a "political trial."

In Mayer's account, readers meet Austin Woolfolk, "the most notorious of the Baltimore Negro-buyers," and Charles Mitchell, the brilliant Baltimore attorney who took Garrison's case pro bono.

Mayer was also lured to Garrison through his own personal history. His family moved from the Bronx to Kinston, a small town in North Carolina, when he was 12, in 1954, the year Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated the public school system.

As a young Jewish kid in a parochial town, Mayer found himself torn between speaking out in the nascent civil rights struggle and being pressured to keep a low profile.

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