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Professor Kellie Carter Jackson with Lessons from Black Abolitionists
"Violence... is an engine."
As the US becomes ever more divided, I spoke to Kellie Carter Jackson, the Michael and Denise Kellen 68’ Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. Professor Carter Jackson studies slavery, abolitionism, and the Civil War, and is the author of the award-winning book, Force & Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. She’s also the cohost of “Oprahdemics,” a podcast where she and fellow historian Leah Wright Rigueur break down Oprah’s most iconic episodes. I highly recommend it!
In our interview, Professor Carter Jackson and I talked about Black abolitionists’ shifting strategies before the Civil War and the lessons their resistance can teach us today. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here. To sign up for free and paid content, click below:
Ben: It’s a pleasure to have you here, Professor Carter Jackson.
KCJ: Thank you so much for having me. This is going to be fun.
Ben: I hope so! To begin, I’d like to ask you about abolitionists’ tactic of “moral suasion.” What was it, and why didn’t it work?
KCJ: Very simply, moral suasion was the idea that you could morally persuade someone to give up their enslaved property and abolish slavery nonviolently. It was all about non-resistance, so not using force, guns, or violence to persuade someone, but more about saying, Hey, listen, slavery is wrong. Slavery is a sin that you need to repent.
The main proponent of moral suasion was a white abolitionist named William Lloyd Garrison. On very rare occasions, in response to moral suasion, an enslaver would have a legit come-to-Jesus moment. But for the most part, this tactic was ineffective. Slavery was so profitable and such a powerful institution that practically no one was willing to relinquish that kind of control, power, and wealth.
Black abolitionists were happy to have an ally in Garrison, but they didn’t think moral suasion would work. They basically said slavery starts with violence, slavery is sustained through violence, and slavery will only be overthrown through violence.
Ben: There's a quote in your book that’s indicative of Garrison’s views, where he says, “Among the friends of moral reform... the belief is prevailing more and more that our Saviour meant to inculcate the doctrine of never fighting in self-defense.”
KCJ: Yeah, that's crazy. That stance is such a luxury. If you've never been enslaved, if you've never had your family members torn away from you, then you could say something like that.
But self-defense is natural. Frederick Douglass says “self-defense is God-given.” And I think almost all people can agree that the right to protect yourself, to preserve your own life, your humanity, and that of your loved ones is completely fair.
Ben: So moving into the 1840s, what pushes Black abolitionists away from moral suasion and toward more violent forms of resistance?
KCJ: In 1843, abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet gave a famous speech saying, "Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour... You cannot be more oppressed than you have been... Rather die freemen than live to be slaves.”
So he basically gives the “give me liberty or give me death!” speech to enslaved and free Black people. And people were torn. This was one of the most divisive speeches of the 19th century, and abolitionists wondered if Garnet’s speech was too incendiary.
But soon you get the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which basically said: it doesn't matter if you ran away from slavery five days ago, five years ago, or fifty years ago. If your master finds you, he can retrieve you and take you back to the South.
This meant that Southerners go into the North to retrieve Black people. Even people who were born free but might not have had papers or a white person to vouch for them were at risk.
This inhumane legislation changed a lot of Black abolitionists’ minds. People like Frederick Douglass, for example, who had believed that moral suasion might be viable, started viewing violence as the only way to end slavery.
Ben: So how did this shift toward violence materialize in the 1850s, and what was women’s role in the resistance?
KCJ: I love talking about this moment because it's so empowering to see the kind of courage that men and especially Black women had.
I really zero in on Black women too, because oftentimes we think that fighting back or protecting one's household is men's work, but women were maybe even more entitled to the use of violence because of sexual assault, because of the theft of their children and their bodies.
In Force and Freedom, I talk about a story in Christiana, Pennsylvania called the Christiana Resistance. A couple, William and Eliza Parker were station masters on the Underground Railroad. They started a Black self-protection society and had a creed that’s like: we will not allow any fugitive slave to be returned even at the risk of our own lives.
And there's one particular incident in which four escaped slaves leave Maryland and get to the Parkers’ home in Pennsylvania. They’re only there for a few hours before Edward Gorsuch, the owner of these four men, arrives with slave catchers, knocks on the Parkers’ door, and demands his property back.
William Parker's like, “Over my dead body, it's not happening.” And his wife, Eliza, says, “Listen, babe, want me to sound the alarm? I will sound the alarm!” And she goes to the roof of the attic of their home and starts to blow this loud horn. The Black self-protection society comes by the dozens and about 80 men and women, both white and Black, some of them Quakers, armed with guns, pistols, pitchforks, and farm equipment, surround Edward Gorsuch.
And long story short, no one knows who fired the first shot, but Edward Gorsuch is fatally wounded. William Parker writes in his memoir that as he lay dying, the women “put it into him.” It is wild! And everyone managed to escape: Eliza, William, and the four escaped slaves—they all eventually made their way to Canada and lived out the rest of their days there.
Ben: I found it thought-provoking that Black abolitionists increasingly saw these absurd, violent, egregious laws that were passed or upheld in the 1850s as illegitimate and refused to follow them. They're pretty much like: that is not something we are going to comply with. (SCOTUS in 2022, take note.)
KCJ: Yeah. One of the things I ask in a lot of my research is: how should oppressed people respond to their oppression? What do you do when you don't have the ability to be able to vote? How do the powerless procure power?
And the simplest answer to that, I think, is violence. If you can't vote, use moral suasion, or soften people’s hearts with slave narratives or memoirs—other tools abolitionists used to try to get people to pay attention—well, violence is something that guarantees an audience. You cannot guarantee change, but people will have to respond.
It's not a coincidence that we teach classes from the slave trade to the Civil War, from the Civil War to World War I, World War II to Vietnam, and Vietnam to 9/11. Every single major historical turning point in this country is hinged around some sort of violence.
And so, as much as we abhor violence, we have to be honest about the fact that it really is an engine that moves us in a different direction. That direction's not always positive or progressive, but it moves us places.
Ben: You quote Frederick Douglass when he looks back on the Civil War as saying, “The American public discovered and accepted more truth in our four years of civil war than they learned in forty years of peace.”
KCJ: Yeah, that's sad, right? But that's true! The Civil War did a lot in a very short amount of time. Now, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost, but you got the end of slavery. People had been asking for the end of slavery, begging for it, pushing for it, and advocating for it for decades, and they got nowhere. And then you got war and you got death and you got change. It’s a sobering reality.
I think you could even say the same thing about the Civil Rights Movement. People look at the movement like it’s nonviolent, but I tell my students all the time, “No, the Civil Rights Movement is a response to violence.” It's a response to the death of Emmett Till, to the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and to four little girls killed in a church.
The truth is that there’s no form of protest that white supremacy is going to approve of. Whether you throw a Molotov cocktail, torch a car, march, picket, boycott, take a knee—there's no form of protest that white supremacy is going to sanction. Like when Colin Kaepernick took a knee—a physical sign of subservience—we lost our minds!
So the problem is not necessarily the rock that’s thrown. The problem is the reason the rock is thrown.
Ben: So what do you see as the utility of violence today? Because, in the 1860s, the oppressive institution was clear: slavery. Today, white supremacy seems more diffuse and maybe harder to combat.
KCJ: Yeah, racism and white supremacy are kind of like Covid, right? You get a vaccine for one thing, or you overthrow one thing, and then it mutates into something else, and you're constantly trying to play catch up, figuring out how to stop it.
In 1837, an abolitionist named Joshua Easton says, “Abolitionists may attack slaveholding, but there is a danger still that the spirit of slavery will survive, in the form of prejudice, after the system is overturned.”
And that is still the conundrum we face right now. We have effectively overthrown slavery, as well as Jim Crow and segregation (kind of), but the real issue is not necessarily these institutions: it's the ideology that fuels them.
So how do you change that? One thing, maybe, is electing younger people who believe in change. A lot of the abolitionists in power after the Civil War, like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, were really old.
Ben: The Bernie Sanders of their time.
KCJ: Seriously! They didn’t have the ability to maintain that momentum, and that’s one reason Reconstruction was so short-lived. There was a lot of really great progressive change and then all of it got overturned in part because there weren’t enough people to uphold and push for the progress that needed to continue to happen.
Another point to recognize is that abolitionists were a very small percentage of the population. There were hundreds of them, and they were considered a radical fringe group. Still, how they were able to empower Black people is mindboggling to me. So, you don’t need a lot of people to make progressive change; you need the will to make it. You need the will to recognize that we live in a society that’s really harmful if you are poor or Black or Indigenous or an immigrant or a woman, and you shouldn’t need to see a horrid viral video of a policeman or new, vile legislation to reveal that harm and fight back against it.
I have every reason to hope we can get to that point. Now, does that mean change will come tomorrow? No. Does that mean I’m looking at the world with rose-colored glasses? No, but hope is sustained over time, from generation to generation, and you are dead in the water without it.
Ben: Well put, and encouraging, although I should note that Professor Carter Jackson is literally wearing rose-tinted glasses.
KCJ: Ha! I’m not. Red lipstick, yes, but glasses, no.
Ben: Alright, well this was so illuminating and a blast. Thank you so much for being here.
KCJ: Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure.