The legacy of Elijah Lovejoy: Let truth ring out!
BY CHRIS MAHIN
The event shocked the conscience of American and led directly to the Civil War. Although it is barely mentioned in most schoolbooks, the murder of editor Elijah Lovejoy on November 7, 1837 is one of the most significant events in U.S. history. The life of this courageous opponent of slavery should be celebrated by all those who love freedom.
Elijah Lovejoy might have led an uneventful life if he had been born in a peaceful time, but his era was anything but peaceful. He lived in a moment of history marked by intense conflict between the legislative representatives of the slave states and free states. This battle for control of the Union was particularly bitter in the Midwest. In 1828, Lovejoy began to feel the effects of this “irrepressible conflict” when he moved from his native Maine, a free state, to St. Louis (located in the slave state of Missouri).
Lovejoy, the son of a minister, became a partner in a St. Louis newspaper. His early articles dealt with subjects like the evils of tobacco, whiskey, and breaking the Sabbath. However, Lovejoy’s priorities changed after he went to study for the ministry at Princeton University. There, he came under the influence of America’s leading opponent of slavery, the impassioned Boston minister William Lloyd Garrison.
Lovejoy returned to St. Louis in 1833 and became editor of the St. Louis Observer. His position was uncompromising: Slavery is a sin and should be abolished. When the newspaper’s office was destroyed by a mob, he was forced to flee across the Mississippi River to Alton, in the free state of Illinois.
When Lovejoy’s printing press arrived in Alton, the crate was tossed into the Mississippi River by a mob. Although some of Lovejoy’s friends begged him to refrain from discussing slavery, he continued his agitation. Twice more, presses used to print his newspaper were destroyed. Then, on the evening of November 7, 1837, a drunken mob of 200 people attacked the office of the Alton Observer. Five slugs from a double-barreled shotgun killed Elijah Lovejoy as he tried to protect his printing press. Lovejoy’s assassins were freed by the local authorities.
The death of this 35-year-old editor and minister set off a chain of events which transformed America. Former President John Quincy Adams called Lovejoy America’s first martyr to freedom of the press. Lovejoy’s murder convinced John Brown that slavery would never be abolished by peaceful means; Brown began planning how to counter the violence of slavery with violence.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy was the kind of person who emerges when a society is in crisis. At such moments in history, individuals step forward who are capable of seeing further than the average person can. Fired with a sense of mission, these leaders are the first to feel deeply about the moral choices facing society. They sense the answer to a problem and fight to make others grasp it. They search for ways to shake the mass of people out of their complacency.
Such leaders have always seized the weapons of the printed page and the speaker’s platform and used them to win people to new ideas. Sometimes, these leaders pay a terrible price for their devotion, falling in the struggle as Elijah Lovejoy did. But their victory lies in the minds which ultimately get opened as a result of their relentless agitation. Lovejoy’s heroic death helped people understand that slavery was wrong and that it endangered the freedom not only of the slave, but also of the people of the North and West as well.
The abolitionists of the 19th century felt an obligation to protest the most horrific wrong of their generation. They understood that economic, social, and political issues ultimately express themselves as moral choices.
Today, this country once again finds itself in the midst of economic dislocation and social strife. Just as in the pre-Civil War era, these issues come down to moral choices.
In Lovejoy’s time, the 10,000 families that controlled the largest Southern plantations (and owned most of the slaves in the United States) completely dominated the political life of the country. That handful of people, a tiny percent of the 30 million human beings then residing in the United States, were prepared to do anything necessary to maintain their political control. (They certainly showed that by killing Lovejoy.)
Today, 1 percent of the population of the United States controls 42 percent of the wealth – and 445 billionaires own 45 percent of the world’s wealth. In the country where chattel slaves once picked cotton, welfare recipients in the “workfare” slave-labor program now pick up filthy debris from the city parks with their bare hands. As in Lovejoy’s time, the crying need of the present is for those who see further and feel deeper to step forward. Once again, it is time to shake people out of their complacency. It is time for words as uncompromising as those of Elijah Lovejoy and William Lloyd Garrison to ring out again from the speaker’s platform and leap off the pages of the revolutionary press.
History will never forget Lovejoy, the man who dared to challenge the political domination of the United States by 10,000 slaveholders. If we honor him for courageously speaking the truth that “slavery is sin” even in the slave state of Missouri, don’t we have an obligation to speak truth to power today, to challenge the political control of this society by a small class of millionaires?
This article originally appeared in the November 1997 edition of the People’s Tribune. For more information about the People’s Tribune, go to: http://www.peoplestribune.org
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Deported past the Statue of Liberty: The Palmer Raids
BY CHRIS MAHIN
We were led to a cabin. … Then came a violent lurch; we were on our way. I looked at my watch. It was 4:20 a.m. …
On the deck above us I could hear the men tramping up and down in the wintry blast. I felt dizzy, visioning a transport of politicals doomed to Siberia. … Russia of the past rose before me and I saw the revolutionary martyrs being driven into exile. But no, it was New York, it was America, the land of liberty! Through the port-hole I could see the great city receding into the distance, its sky-line of buildings traceable by their rearing heads. It was my beloved city, the metropolis of the New World. It was America , indeed America repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia! I glanced up — the Statute of Liberty!
— Emma Goldman, Living My Life
It had been a year of upheavals — and of strikes.
Early in the year, a one-week general strike had swept Seattle, ignited by a strike of 35,000 shipbuilders who had begun a fight for higher wages, an 8-hour day, and a 44-hour week. That same month, in Patterson, New Jersey, 28,000 workers in the silk mills went on strike. In the fall, the police of Boston struck. In late September, 365,000 steelworkers walked off their jobs, a strike which began simultaneously in dozens of cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other states.
It was the year 1919 — and the rulers of this country were worried.
World War I had ended on November 11, 1918 and the result was turmoil across much of the globe. Large sections of western Europe lay in ashes. In the East, the Russian Revolution had taken place.
A Mitchell Palmer
In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appointed a new attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer was a Pennsylvania attorney with liberal credentials — including past support for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage — but he soon reversed his views. Alarmed at the militancy of workers around the world, Palmer came to believe that communism was “eating its way into the homes of the American workman.”
Palmer’s 24-year-old assistant J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge of a new division of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, the General Intelligence Division. By October 1919, Hoover’s department had collected 150,000 names in rapidly growing files.
On June 2, 1919, bombs went off in eight cities, including Washington, D.C. (where Palmer’s house was partially damaged). Responsibility for these attacks was never established, although it was alleged by some that anarchists were behind them.
The bombings gave Palmer the excuse he needed. Palmer and Hoover orchestrated a series of showy and well-publicized raids against alleged radicals, using the provisions of the Espionage Act of 1919 and the Sedition Act of 1918.
Beginning on November 7, 1919, Palmer’s men smashed into union offices and the headquarters of radical organizations. In December, Palmer’s agents seized 248 resident aliens and forced them on board the Buford, a ship bound for the Soviet Union. The deportees included Emma Goldman — the union organizer, feminist, and anarchist. Among the exiled were young boys. One of them was on crutches. Another, suffering from an ulcerated stomach, had been carried from his bed in the immigration station hospital to the assembly point to board the Buford.
Later, in January 1920, Palmer and Hoover organized the largest mass arrests in U.S. history, rounding up as many as 10,000 suspected troublemakers.
It has now been 98 years since immigrant workers were forcibly ejected from the United States, imprisoned on a ship which literally sailed past the Statue of Liberty with its inscription “Give me your tired, your poor, your restless masses yearning to breathe free.” Much has changed in the years since the events which are now known as “The Palmer Raids,” but there are some eerie parallels between the “Red Scare” of 1919 and today.
In both 1919 and our time, acts of terrorism have been followed by grotesque violations of civil liberties and attacks on immigrant workers.
It’s important to remember, too, that the deportation of the passengers on the Buford took place right in the midst of what was then the largest and most sustained effort to unionize the steel industry in American history — the Great Steel Strike of 1919. In 1919, half the steelworkers in the United States were immigrants — and organizing steel was the key to unionizing all of basic industry. The anti-immigrant and anti-radical campaign waged by the Wilson administration and the arrest of key union organizers by Palmer and Hoover’s flunkies were not the only reason for the failure of the 1919 steel strike — but they certainly contributed to its defeat. That loss meant that this country had to wait until the 1930s to see a successful attempt to unionize steel and organize viable industrial unions.
Given this, can anyone doubt that creating hysteria about “Reds,” “terrorists,” and immigrants hurts all of labor?
November 7, 2017 marks the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the Palmer Raids. Attached and below is an article that I wrote several years ago about the raids, updated slightly. (The article was written for a union website.) — Chris Mahin