1974.02.01: History of An Unfree People: Black History Series No. 8: Abolitionists (Red Tide)


Red Tide, Vol. 3, No. 2 [Issue #12]
February 1974

History of An Unfree People: Black History Series No. 8: Abolitionists
[By Michael Letwin]

Who fought to free black slaves? George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Abe Lincoln? If we choose to believe what our textbooks say, then we would accept them answers.

In reality, however, those who fought for an end to slavery were working people in the North, individual abolitionists such as John Brown and women’s liberationists such as Susan B. Anthony. Most heroic were black slaves themselves.

It was these groups of people who[,] for years before the Civil War, fought to free black people from slavery.


Working class people in the North had several reasons for fighting slavery. One was that since they themselves were exploited by their employers by being paid less than the value of the products they produced, workers fought against their conditions of life[,] which was and still is, wage slavery. They had to work for someone else who would get rich off the workers’ labor in order for the bosses to get rich. If they did not work in this way, they and their families would not be able to survive.

Many Northern workers saw that black slavery was an even lower form of life than is wage slavery. Being against both forms of slavery, the workers’ movements of the day were dead set against black slavery.

Workers had another reason to be against slavery. As long as there were slaves, white workers could be treated worse because the bosses could often threaten to use real slave labor instead of theirs. Workers in those days were fighting against conditions under which they found themselves, and these included working 12-16 hours a day, and getting paid so little that they could almost never afford to feed a family. They were told that if they protested these conditions, the bosses would fire them and get slave labor in their place.


Another group that fought against slavery were the ancestors of today’s women’s liberation movement. Such women as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, Sojourner Truth and others, who were fighting for women’s rights at the time, also were among the most courageous fighters for black freedom. As women, they were fighting for equal pay with men (a right which has not yet been won for most women), the right to vote, and similar issues. They saw that their own oppression as women was similar to that of black slaves; both were (and in most cases still are) treated as economic and pleasure objects of rich white men. These women went on speaking tours with abolitionist men such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, a militant black runaway slave.


Perhaps one of the staunchest non-black freedom fighters for an end to slavery was John Brown. On October 18, 1859, Brown led a group of followers in an attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to get arms for black slaves. The U.S. Army sent in a detachment led by no less than then-Colonel Robert E. Lee, who thwarted their attempt, and who saw to it that Brown and his followers were hung.

[Brown] was an example of a person who put his actions where his words were, and who laid down his life for freedom.

And, of course, most heroic in their opposition to slavery were black slaves themselves, who fought both as individuals and in groups to gain freedom (see article in last issue). Examples of these are Nat Turner[,] who led a slave rebellion in 1831, and Harriet Tubman[,] who led slaves out of slavery.


What about the “fathers” of this country? Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and others? Glad you asked! Men like Washington and Jefferson were rich because of the black slaves that they owned and the wealth that these slaves produced. To the extent that [some] of them were against slavery morally, it certainly did not stop them from owning and exploiting black slaves.

Lincoln? Well he had a lot of things to say about slavery, among them that if he could hold the union together without freeing the slaves, he would do so. And he tried. Though the Civil War started in 1861, Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” was not issued until 1863!

This is, to put it mildly, a far cry from the story that our history textbooks tell us about who fought slavery in this country.


The people who were really against slavery fought against it, and this is a lesson about freedom from all kinds of slavery that must be learned.

*Feminism: The Essential Writings, Schneir
*American Negro Slave Revolts, Aptheker
*Free Soil, Free Land, Free Men, Foner

[Historical Note: The Red Tide was a revolutionary high school underground newspaper and youth organization that existed from 1971-1981. See: http://theredtide.wordpress.com/]



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