Think the current controversy over “black lives matter” is new? African American activists wrestled with the question almost 200 years ago. Their answers are still relevant today.
In the decades before the Civil War, African Americans in the “free” states contended with innumerable limitations on their liberty. Most could not vote, attend public schools, or join nascent labor unions. Racial pogroms regularly struck major cities such as Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and popular culture stereotyped free African Americans as pretentious urban dwellers hopelessly incapable of conforming to the standards of respectable middle-class life. States in the Midwest demanded what was essentially a security deposit for blacks to settle there, while the Western state of Oregon forbade them entirely.
At the same time, America proudly touted itself as an emblem of liberty, staunchly dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal. In 1847, then-Secretary of State James Buchanan declared the United States the “freest and best Government upon earth.” Small wonder that an energetic generation of African American activists and ideologues found fault with their nation; were it truly dedicated to its founding principles, it would not discriminate against any race.
Addressing the problem, though, posed troublesome questions for the antebellum movement for freedom and equality. In a society that was supposed to be color-blind, how to address the particular plight of some without violating the principle of racial neutrality?
In 1837, leading African American thinkers debated the question in the black press. At issue was whether or not it was right for institutions designed for black uplift to close their doors to whites. On the one hand stood William Whipper, a Philadelphia activist and founder of the bi-racial American Moral Reform Society (AMRS). With him was Robert Purvis, another leading light in Philadelphia’s black abolitionist circles. Both argued against “complexional distinctions,” or the principle that blacks ought to act alone to further their interests. Squared off against the Philadelphians were newspaper editor Samuel Cornish of New York, Henry Highland Garnet, another outspoken black New Yorker, and William J. Watkins, a free black teacher from Baltimore.
Watkins initiated the fracas when he publicly denounced Whipper’s AMRS for its position on black-only institutions. Whipper had pledged to keep the doors of the AMRS open to whites sympathetic with the cause, and denounced those who failed to follow suit in their own institutions. To exclude whites from their midsts, Whipper argued, was to commit the very crime against which black activists contended. It was “to be governed by the most invidious of all creeds that ever regulated human duty, viz. the complexion of the human body.”1 To limit participation in their movements to blacks alone smacked of a prejudice that violated core precepts which lay at the heart of the nation. That whites violated those principles as a matter of course excused nothing; their hypocrisy could not rationalize black’s adoption of racialism. Whipper had a point: black leaders built a powerful case on exposing the hypocrisy of white Americans who endorsed the Declaration of Independence while simultaneously crediting it to the unique genius of the Anglo-Saxon race. Committed first and foremost to democratic principles which seemed to hold all they needed, black leaders could ill-afford to risk hypocrisy themselves.
Whipper’s opponents argued that the object was never to build institutions which sought to cultivate black unity for its own sake. Watkins advocated racially distinct institutions for his people “not because they are colored — but because, being colored, they are, for the most part, despised, neglected, and denied the facilities enjoyed by others.”2 Cornish agreed: “We say that our condition in the community is a peculiar one, and that we need special efforts and special organization, to meet our wants and to obtain and maintain our rights.” The editor did not “love one class of men more than another,” and was as much opposed to “complexional distinctions” as anyone. “Yet we are one of an oppressed people,” Cornish wrote, “and we deem it alike our privilege and duty, to labor especially for that people, until all their disabilities are removed.”3 Garnet did not think that “by watering and preserving the plant that perfumes our room, that therefore we dislike all other plants in the world.”4
Watkins illustrated the position through a story: on a ship at sea, two men, one white and one black, fall overboard. Five passengers, four white and one black, rush to help. The four white passengers, being prejudiced, all reach for the white man. The black passenger runs to the rescue, stretching out not one hand to the white victim and one to the black, but both to the black man — the one who, “under the circumstances, most needs help.” None of this required “the least want of compassion for the white man.”5 Garnet concurred. Refusing to submit to a logic which whites manipulated to their own advantage, he highlighted the ways white Americans benefited by selectively invoking liberalism’s guarantee of equal treatment before the law while simultaneously claiming a race-national loyalty which elevated them above all others. “We have no sympathy with that cosmopoliting disposition which tramples upon all nationality, which encircles the universe, but at the same time theorizes away the most needed blessings, and blights the dearest hopes of a people.”6 If whites could invoke the rules selectively for their own benefit, African Americans had no choice but to do the same.
It was a potent argument in 1837 — one that helped steer African Americans toward new efforts at independent action and self-determination. Most importantly, it pioneered a response to inequality that remains relevant today. In a world where African Americans remain the special targets of state mistreatment and brutality, how can anyone object to special efforts to remedy this gross violation of national principle?
*This post is adapted from Patrick Rael’s Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 49-50.
- William Watkins to Friend (John P.) Burr, August 13, 1838, Pennsylvania Freeman, September 6, 1838, available in The Black Abolitionist Papers, edited by C. Peter Ripley et al. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), vol. 3, p. 281. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Colored American, March 29, 1838. ↩
- Ibid., March 6, 1841 ↩
- Watkins to Burr, August 13, 1838, Pennsylvania Freeman, September 6, 1838. ↩
- Colored American, March 6, 1841. ↩