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GRIID Class on US Social Movements – Part I: The Abolitionist Movement

January 28, 2021

Over the next 8 weeks, we will be posting a summary of the class we are facilitating on US Social Movements. These posts will include a summary of the discussion, the questions we presented to frame each social movement that is discussed, a timeline and additional books that are relevant to each movement.

The US Abolitionist Movement, is not only the first significant social movement in US history, it is the foundational movement for all other movements. W. E. B. DuBois referred to the salve revolt as the first “general strike,” and the early labor movement also referred to working for Robber Barons as “wage slavery.” In addition, the some within the early suffrage movement, saw the direct connection between the dismantling of chattel slavery with the liberation of women. Angela Davis, in her monumental work, Women, Race and Class, that the Abolitionist movement laid the foundation for an intersectional analysis of race, gender and class.

For this first week, everyone read chapter 9 from Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, which deals specifically with the Abolitionist movement. Zinn doesn’t waste anytime juxtaposing the radical demands of those who were enslaved to the systems of power that were defending slavery. Participants in the class noted some of the more dynamic aspects of the Abolitionist Movements, which had nothing to do with reform, but everything to do with ending the brutal practice of slavery.

In the class we used a timeline of the 19th Century, which had critical points of the Abolitionist movement on the top, along with other important aspects of that century, which were connected to slavery, which were listed on the lower half of the timeline shown here.

In addition, each of the participants were provided with a list of questions to help frame and facilitate a more focused discussion. We will list all 8 of the questions and a brief overview of what was discussed for each question.

  1. What are the systems of power and oppression that existed during the period of history being discussed, and more importantly, what were the systems of power and oppression that the social movement was confronting, challenging or seeking to dismantle? The most obvious system of oppression was the legal protection of humans owning other humans, or what was referred to then as chattel slavery. This system was a private system, consisting of hundreds of plantation owners who used slave labor. People also identified Capitalism as another system of oppression, since Capitalism drove the demand of cash crops like cotton and tobacco, which were central to the plantation system. Capitalism and slavery was the focus of important book by Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. In addition, people identified the legal system, the political system, religion and the use of slave patrols, which were designed to enforce hunt down slaves who fled the plantations.
  2. What else was happening in the country or around the world that may have influenced how both the systems of power/oppression and the social movement responded? Here, the class relied on the timeline to see what else was happening in the US and around the world that had a direct impact on the Abolitionist Movement. People identified the Haitian Revolution as being an inspiration for the Abolitionists, which is precisely why the US has been punishing Haiti ever since. We also discussed briefly the thesis of Matthew Karp’s book, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, which investigates members of Congress that supported slavery and how that impacted the relationship between the US and countries that endorsed slavery and those that didn’t. The US wars against Indigenous peoples was also discussed, along with the relationship between Settler Colonialism and Chattel Slavery. Lastly, there was discussion about legislation that benefited the Capitalist Class, such as the Homestead Act, the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad as integral components of Capitalist expansion and how workers were organizing against such dynamics.
  3. In what way(s) did the social movement organize itself. Centralized, decentralized, autonomous, etc? The Abolitionist Movement was mostly decentralist and autonomous. To this question, most of the conversation centered around the limited means of communication available, but people also talked about the benefits and limitations to not having a well connected movement.
  4. What were the goal(s), strategies and tactics of the social movement? The main goal was to end Chattel Slavery. Some strategies were education, media, mutual aid, but the primary strategy was Direct Action. Tactics that were used were rebellions, escaping, burning the plantation, finding temporary housing for those who fled, speeches, using force, writing editorials, sharing testimony from those formerly enslaved, organizing and arming people against the plantation system.
  5. How did the system of power/oppression push back against the demands and gains made by the social movement? The system pushed back by passing the Fugitive Slave Act, by increasing the terror tactics against those who were enslaved, organizing white armed thugs into slave patrols, undermining the provisions of the Reconstruction period, passing the 13th Amendment (which now gave the state power to incarcerate and evolve slavery), and white people organizing themselves into terrorist groups like the KKK. 
  6. Were their intersectional aspects of the struggle the social movement was engaged in? There was always a race, class and gender critique within the aspects of the Abolitionist Movement. 
  7. How did the social movement impact other existing or future social movements? The Abolitionist movement deeply impacted the early labor and suffrage movements, particularly because of people like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and the Grimke sisters. 
  8. How was the social movement compromised or co-opted, and by which external forces were they compromised or co-opted? The political system coopted the movement by making promises that were never fulfilled – 40 acres and a mule, or by getting them to believe in the Reconstruction policies, which were then taken away through political deals, particularly the deal knows as the Compromise of 1877, which was an informal agreement between southern Democrats and allies of the Republican Rutherford Hayes to settle the result of the 1876 presidential election, in exchange for withdrawing US troops from the south, thus ending the Reconstruction era.

Additional reading resources:

A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for Meaning and Freedom, by avid Williams

The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the Unite States, by Ira Berlin

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery an the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist

How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, by Manning Marable

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, by Eric Foner

John Brown’s War Against Slavery, by Robert McGlone

Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army, by Eugene Meyer

Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, an Profited from Slavery, by Anne Farrow, Joel Lang and Jennifer Frank

This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy, by Matthew Karp.

And the Spirit Moved Them: The Lost Radical History of America’s First Feminists, by Helen LaKelly Hunt

Women, Race & Class, by Angela Davis

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