Lincoln Memorial. Photo credit: Spencer J Harris Photo / Shutterstock.com.
On the same weekend when hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets of countless American cities, I saw a yard sign reading “Black Lives Matter!” in Genoa, New York — which came as a real shock. Genoa is an overwhelmingly Republican town of 1,900 residents, with a tiny black population that represents less than 1 percent of the community. The only yard signs I had seen in Genoa before read: “Make America Great Again!” Apart from the oasis that is Ithaca (where I live), this part of upstate New York is Trump Country.
And yet this clearly is a moment when support for African American rights has swept the entire country, with a sweep and a depth of moral conviction that I have never seen before. Its other remarkable feature is the presence of enormous numbers of white Americans among the black and brown faces in the crowds — along with the appearance of anti-racist protests in small rural towns that are almost entirely white. Equally remarkable has been the spread of the protests to countries thousands of miles away, where (mainly white) protesters have pulled down statues of slave traders, as in Bristol, England, and demanded justice for indigenous Australians, as in Brisbane and Sydney.
But there are already signs of divisions among these new abolitionists, who I hope can learn from some of the mistakes made by their predecessors in the original anti-slavery movement that arose in the middle of the nineteenth century.
In 1845, abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution, calling it a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” Refusing to participate in American electoral politics, the Garrisonians argued for a dissolution of the Union. Garrison’s uncompromising stance won him the support of only a minority of the anti-slavery movement — and threatened to destroy its broader appeal to Americans who thought of freedom as “national” and of slavery as a regional disease to be cured by Federal action.
In 1854, a new party arose, which would champion this more moderate strand of anti-slavery activism. It was called the Republican party, and although it had a variety of sources, it attracted the support of many voters who had become abolitionists in the previous decades but found Garrison and his followers too radical. The most outspoken among them came to be called “radical Republicans,” but many others — like future president Abraham Lincoln — were “moderates” on the issue of abolition, while still others were “conservatives” whose major goal was defeating the two major parties, the Whigs, who controlled much of the North, and the Democrats, who were lords of the South.
When secession came in 1861, the radicals in the Republican party helped convince Lincoln to turn the Civil War into a struggle to emancipate the slaves. They also pressed him to recruit African Americans into the army, where they served gallantly and gained the self-confidence to return south with ambitions to gain rights for their people. As for Garrison, no sooner was the war ended than he declared his long career to be over, and retired from the American Anti-Slavery Society he had founded.
Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, disagreed with Garrison’s retreat, arguing that “slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” The radical republicans in victory at first shared Douglass’s goal, and insisted on reconstructing the South and extending the suffrage to the freed slaves, who they expected would all vote Republican. Not without the use of constitutional hardball, they pushed the XIVth and XVth amendments through Congress — sending the Union army to the region to enforce the new policies.
Time passed. As the North’s enthusiasm for the costs and the bother of Reconstruction waned, Republicans began to edge away from abolitionist ideals, as the white power structure in the South, through means both legal and violent, worked to restore white supremacy.
By 1876, as Eric Foner documents in his definitive book, Reconstruction was dead. In the election of that year, which resulted in a dead heat, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was declared the winner over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden in exchange for agreeing to end Reconstruction and pull the Union’s troops from the South. By the 1890s, “Jim Crow,” a set of laws and practices that reduced the former slaves to something approaching serfdom, was in place, while the Republicans — the storied saviors of the black population of the South — occupied themselves cornering the votes of northern and western voters.
I have rehearsed this well-known story not to give my readers a potted lesson in American history, but to compare it to the extraordinary phenomenon of the enormous multiracial movement against the brutal killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
Of course, police abuse of African Americans is nothing like the sins of slavery, but we have arguably not seen such a virtually unanimous display of interracial solidarity in the history of the United States. “The difference that I’ve seen,”: declared the pastor of the Calvary Church in Newport News, Virginia, “is that there are more white people locking arms with black people today in the midst of riots or protesting than I’ve ever seen.”
Almost instantly, there have been positive results of the emerging movement. Sharp as ever in her political acumen, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has launched — while taking a knee and robed in African colors — a sweeping set of Democratic proposals for police reform. After years of vacillating on racist and militarized policing practices, some Republican members of Congress have come out in favor of police reform. Weary of waiting for Washington to act, state and local governments — to whose chief executives state and local police chiefs are responsible — are working up solutions to the long-standing problem of racist policing. Police reform has suddenly turned into a pressing issue for all levels of government: The city council of Minneapolis overwhelmingly voted to defund the police force that currently exists in that city.
But there are already warning signs of division in this young movement. As I’ve written about other cycles of protest, periods of widespread popular revolt always have significant political effects, but these effects are not predictable and depend on the cohesion of the protest movement and the response of elites to the movement.
The failure of the struggle for black rights after the Civil War was due to many factors, but the pre-war split between the Garrisonians and those anti-slavery advocates who became Republicans was one of them. When Garrison and his followers vanished from view after the war, Republicans no longer were facing outside pressure to stay the course. Instead, the party’s leaders were free to become absorbed by making the country safe for capitalism. The losers were the freed slaves — and the ideals of freedom and equality in the United States.
What might happen if today’s most ardent abolitionists were to hive off into a separate radical movement, as the Garrisonians did before the Civil War?
We have a recent example that is worrying. In the second half of the 1960s, the northern branch of the civil rights and the anti-war movement both turned radical — and, in places, violent. That shift alienated a substantial portion of white supporters of social change. Not only that: it provided Richard Nixon with a pretext to run his 1968 campaign on a “law and order” program, just as the country was entering what would turn out to be an extended phase of contention over the war in Vietnam. One result was a spate of draconian new policies and laws meant to intimidate protesters; another was the effort to attack both the antiwar movement and civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King through clandestine spying and intimidation; a third was the shift of many black activists from movement politics to running for public office.
Will moderate white supporters of black civil rights today retreat to the compromises and evasions like those that came to define the Republican Party after 1876? Already, moderate Democrats have begun to retreat to the position that if only “bad apples” like the policeman who murdered George Floyd were removed from the nation’s 1,800 police departments, then the scourge of racialized police violence would end. I am skeptical: For decades, reformers have attempted to hold in check the racism in many of our police departments, but have largely given up, faced by Republican opposition and police union obstruction.
At the same time, following the broad public outcry against the killing of George Floyd, there have been calls from the Left for cities to “defund the police.” Led by the members of the Minneapolis city council — no doubt smarting from the city’s inability to protect its black citizens — the call for defunding by these new “Garrisonians” has spread rapidly among the most radical protesters in the streets. Predictably, the Trump campaign immediately blamed the Democrats for abetting criminality by calling for the defunding of police forces, a false claim that presidential contender Joe Biden immediately denied. But one already senses the potential for another split between radical and moderate abolitionists — not so dissimilar from the splits that limited the effectiveness of Reconstruction after the Civil War, and of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
With a broad swath of public opinion outraged over the persistence of African American deaths at the hands of the police, with the White House reeling over the government’s missteps in meeting the pandemic, and with the president’s disastrous mishandling of the protests, surely there are reform issues around which the progressive and moderate Left and independent voters can unite without raising the provocative banner of “defund the police.”
Ending the abuse of “qualified immunity,” which shields government officials from being held liable for discretionary actions performed within their official capacity; allowing police officers’ record of past abuses to be made available to current victims and their families; establishing a national database of bad police behavior: these are all moderate reforms with radical implications. More ambitiously, the movement could move beyond its preoccupation with policing to demand progress in the underlying racial inequality that scars our nation.
At this critical juncture in a movement for racial justice unprecedented in its breadth of popular support, I can only hope that the new abolitionists will learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.
Sidney Tarrow is Professor Emeritus of Government and an adjunct professor at the Cornell Law School. He is the author of Power in Movement and, most recently, co-editor, with David S. Meyer, of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.