‘Force and Freedom’: A New Book About Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence will soon be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.


The author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence is Kellie Carter Jackson, a nineteenth century historian in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. She earned her B.A from Howard University and her Ph.D from Columbia University. Carter Jackson is also co-editor of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017). Carter Jackson and Erica Ball have also edited a Special Issue on the 40th Anniversary of Roots for Transition Magazine (Issue 122). Together, Ball and Carter Jackson have curated the largest collection of essays dedicated to the history and impact of Alex Haley’s Roots. Carter Jackson was also featured in the History Channel’s documentary, Roots: A History Revealed which was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @kcarterjackson.

From its origins in the 1750s, the white-led American abolitionist movement adhered to principles of “moral suasion” and nonviolent resistance as both religious tenet and political strategy. But by the 1850s, the population of enslaved Americans had increased exponentially, and such legislative efforts as the Fugitive Slave Act and the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott case effectively voided any rights black Americans held as enslaved or free people. As conditions deteriorated for African Americans, black abolitionist leaders embraced violence as the only means of shocking Northerners out of their apathy and instigating an antislavery war.

In Force and Freedom, Kellie Carter Jackson provides the first historical analysis exclusively focused on the tactical use of violence among antebellum black activists. Through rousing public speeches, the bourgeoning black press, and the formation of militia groups, black abolitionist leaders mobilized their communities, compelled national action, and drew international attention. Drawing on the precedent and pathos of the American and Haitian Revolutions, African American abolitionists used violence as a political language and a means of provoking social change.

Through tactical violence, argues Carter Jackson, black abolitionist leaders accomplished what white nonviolent abolitionists could not: creating the conditions that necessitated the Civil War. Force and Freedom takes readers beyond the honorable politics of moral suasion and the romanticism of the Underground Railroad and into an exploration of the agonizing decisions, strategies, and actions of the black abolitionists who, though lacking an official political voice, were nevertheless responsible for instigating monumental social and political change.

“With engaging new sources and a deft reading of familiar narratives, Kellie Carter Jackson reminds us that black resistance was always central to abolition. Force and Freedom centers the role of violence in the long road to black freedom, rendering a more complicated image of black abolitionists who were willing to abandon the petition for the gun. A most important contribution to the study of American abolition.”—Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

J.T. Roane: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?

Kellie Carter Jackson: In the history of the movement to abolish slavery, the shift toward violence among African Americans remains largely unaddressed. However, Black resistance, and in particular, violent resistance was central to emancipation. Force and Freedom actively examines one of the perennial questions in political thought: is violence a valid means of producing social change? Specifically, I address how Black abolitionists answered this question. The abolitionist movement began as a nonviolent endeavor. Each abolitionist leader was instructed to turn the other cheek, to not return the violence of slave owners or those invested in slavery. Within the field, there is a propensity to privilege the performance of nonviolence and deny the possibility and utility of violence as the great accelerator in American emancipation.

I see Black abolitionism as a movement that began almost at the inception of Atlantic world slavery and understood the idea and experience of violence more than any other group. Accordingly, Force and Freedom could just as easily be expressed as force for freedom. The paradox of using force and violence to bring about freedom and ensure peace is common within our own Western political context. Violence is the double-edged sword of democracy. In the quest for freedom, violence becomes a necessary liberating force when it is the only remaining option. Understanding political violence is often about understanding an ideology of last resorts. In many ways, my study is an analysis of “last resorts” among Black Americans. It asks: should the enslaved or free black people be forced to obey laws that do not grant them the rights to shape such laws? The phrase “freedom now” was never more urgent than in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Moreover, for too long, the field and the public in particular, has looked at the abolitionist movement as a “white man’s struggle” to end slavery. I hope the field will continue to move Black abolitionists from the periphery to the center of abolitionist historiography. I hope the field will move beyond the celebrity of Frederick Douglass to highlight the unfamiliar leaders who risked their very lives to bring about the “day of jubilee.” I hope the field will feature more stories on the complexities of Black humanity. Ultimately, I hope the field explores the agonizing decisions and strategies of those charged with the arduous task of creating political and social reform without an official (or recognized) political voice.

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.