Abolitionists Model: Yes, Resist, But, Organize, Organize, Organize!

Community Organizing Organizing

anti-slavery-mtg-posterNew Orleans   I took a call yesterday from someone who believed there was a way to force a new election, block the inauguration, and create an “Orange Revolution” in the United States that would be triggered by a general strike of twenty-million workers. He had sent the email to a dozen or so well-known organizers. After mentioning that with 330 million people and a long history, we were not Ukraine, I asked him if he had gotten traction on this idea from anyone else he had emailed earlier. It seemed I was the only one whose number he had for whatever reason. I couldn’t really see his movie as much more than magical thinking, but I admired his energy and marveled at his “time is wasting, every day counts” desperation.

I read today about the plans for 100,000 women to march on January 21, 2017 on Inauguration Day. In order to pitch the widest tent, organizers are not calling it a protest, they say. I guess it is rather a demonstration expressing their truth at the pinnacle of power’s pageantry.

More interestingly perhaps, a friend and comrade sent me a link to a piece written in The Washington Post by Linda Hirshman, author of a book on women Supreme Court Justices and at work on a book about the abolitionists’ movement. Obviously the parallels are not exact, but they are helpful, and perhaps not only hopeful, but instructive reminders of what we already know. She began with the devastation the abolitionists’’ movement felt at the 1850 Compromise when they had hoped to see slavery abolished, but instead found the entire country forced to act to return fleeing slaves to their owners in the South. A triggering instance in the resistance happened in 1854. As Hirshman tells it:


In 1854, the federal government tried and convicted fugitive Anthony Burns, sending him back to slavery. Unfortunately for the slaveholders, the abolitionists happened to be holding their annual convention in Boston, where the trial was held. After an ax-wielding mob rushed the courthouse, Boston’s mayor put the city under martial law. And on the day of Burns’s rendition, 50,000 protesters lined the streets, as federal troops marched the hapless fugitive to the ship that would take him back to his master in Virginia. Chronicled at every step, the Via Dolorosa of Burns awakened and intensified opposition to slavery throughout the North. Boston’s Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the feelings of many when he said of the Fugitive Slave Law: “I will not obey it, by God.’’


Hats off to Hirshman though. She may be wearing a historian’s button, but there’s an organizer’s heart beating deep behind her advice. She correctly couples the deportation threat for undocumented immigrants with fugitive slaves, and asks the question rhetorically, what abolitionists would do in this moment.

They would gather in huge numbers every time federal agents came for a Hispanic honors student. They would compel those agents to use force if they wanted to proceed. They would document every moment. And they would use the media — back then it was the penny press, the Twitter of its time — to spread the images everywhere. Every vulnerable dreamer should be carrying a cellphone with a number to text if the feds come.

Hirshman argues along with all organizers, that tactics aren’t enough without building organizations and infrastructure or as she calls it “the time-intensive and expensive organizing that actually changes minds and behavior.” Hirshman reminds everyone that movements like these don’t spring up out of the imagination. Speaking of the abolitionists…


These groups were highly organized. They elected executive committees to run their affairs, dispatched speakers to spread the word and held annual conventions. They also had women’s auxiliaries; the gender divide sounds awful today, but the women were the heart of the movement. They held fairs to raise money and sell goods made without slave labor. Then they started going door to door with petitions. The pro-slavery Congress forbade them from delivering those petitions, but that didn’t matter. Each time a woman approached a neighbor about signing, she got a chance to publicize slavery’s cruelty.


Yes, you heard that right: door knocking, door knocking, and more door knocking. Door knocking as resistance. Hirshman even quotes Viridiana Hernandez, a board member of People United for Justice that led the campaign that successfully ousted Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix’s Maricopa County saying,

“This is about community organizing rather than electoral campaigning.”

There are lessons aplenty here, but most of them come down to resist, sure, whenever and wherever on all of the issues, but mainly it’s going to be about doing the hard work of community organizing and organizing, organizing, and organizing some more day after day in the coming years.

Special thanks to longtime reader, Jay Hessey, for sending me a link to the Hirshman piece in the Post.