Adam Hochschild: How the British Inspired Dr. King's Dream

Roundup: Talking About History

Adam Hochschild, in the NYT (1-17-05):

ACROSS the country today, parades, rallies and church services will mark the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Participants usually think of this national holiday - created against considerable opposition two decades ago - as this country's first widely celebrated commemoration of the long struggle for racial justice. Not so. For many decades, beginning well over 150 years ago, both black and white Americans celebrated another such day: Aug. 1.

The former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass called Aug. 1"illustrious among all the days of the year." At the Concord, Mass., courthouse on Aug. 1, 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a major speech against slavery that the writer Margaret Fuller, in the audience, described as"great, heroic, calm, sweet, fair ... tears came to my eyes." On that day in 1847, 10,000 people assembled in Canandaigua, N.Y., to hear Douglass and others speak. Seven thousand people - free blacks and sympathetic whites - attended an Aug. 1 rally in New Bedford, Mass., in 1855. A few black communities in the United States continued to celebrate Aug. 1 until well into the 1920's. Today, in many Caribbean nations, the Monday after Aug. 1 is a national holiday.

Why the First of August?

Long before Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, another major nation had been the first to end slavery in the territory it controlled: Britain. And unlike American slavery, essentially brought to an end through the Civil War, slavery in the British Empire ended as the result of a huge popular movement - whose early start, size and persistence dwarfed its counterpart in America. It's a story most in this country have long forgotten, although several generations of American slaves and their descendants knew it well.

The British antislavery movement burst into being in 1787. Up to that point, few people in England had spoken out on the subject. But within months after a firebrand organizer named Thomas Clarkson convened a 12-man abolition committee at a Quaker bookstore in London, agitation swept the country. Within a few years, more than 300,000 Britons were boycotting sugar, the major product of the British West Indian slave plantations. Nearly 400,000 signed petitions to Parliament demanding an end to the slave trade. Olaudah Equiano, a brilliant former slave, wrote a best-selling autobiography and embarked on a five-year speaking tour of the British Isles. Thomas Clarkson rode 35,000 miles on horseback, gathering witnesses for parliamentary hearings and setting up local antislavery committees. In 1792, the House of Commons became the first national legislative body in the world to vote to end the slave trade.

That ban, however, did not become law, because the House of Lords balked. Then Britain and France began two decades of war, and wars are always bad for progressive movements. Still, the abolitionists did not abandon hope. In the early 1800's Clarkson toured the country again, and in 1807 both houses of Parliament banned the slave trade.

With the death rate on plantations in the British West Indies very high, the abolitionists hoped that cutting off the supply of new slaves would quickly end British slavery itself. When this did not happen, Clarkson - now in his 60's - spent 13 months crisscrossing the country again, this time by stagecoach, in 1823 and 1824.

The next 10 years saw several new rounds of organizing: large petitions, great meetings, skillfully coordinated lobbying, a rare street demonstration and, to widespread male shock, the emergence of outspoken women abolitionists. In addition, there was the added pressure of a large, barely contained slave revolt in Jamaica. Finally, after months of acrimonious debate, in 1833 Parliament voted to phase out slavery throughout the empire. When freedom for all came, just after midnight on Aug. 1, 1838, a group of former slaves who were gathered in a Baptist church in Falmouth, Jamaica, placed a whip, chains and an iron punishment collar in a coffin, and buried it in the churchyard. Emancipation Day has been celebrated ever since.

Click here to read the rest of this article.

comments powered by Disqus