Those who do a coward’s toe dance through life may please the immediate audience, but history acclaims those who are willing to march for their beliefs, even though the terrain may be rough and there will be missteps.
There is no scarcity of people who are oppressed. There is only a scarcity of men and women with eyes clear enough to see and hearts big enough to act.
– Paul Simon, in Freedom’s Champion, Elijah Lovejoy
The very first national “movement” conference in Washington, D.C. that I ever went to was in the fall of 1968. It was a national conference of the peace movement against the Vietnam war. The one thing I remember about it is being in a workshop with Joan Baez and her then-husband, David Harris, a leader of the draft resistance movement.
Something they talked about has stuck with me ever since. It was that each one of us has only one life to live, one lifetime to do with as we will, one chance to have an impact upon other people and the world. Ultimately, that’s all any of us have.
I thought about this after reading a book, Freedom’s Champion, by the late, former U.S. Senator from Illinois, Paul Simon. The book is about someone who I previously knew nothing about, Elijah Lovejoy, the first white person in the USA, according to Simon, who was killed because of his public opposition to slavery. He was killed in the middle of the night on November 7th, 1837 while attempting to prevent a racist, pro-slavery mob from destroying the printing press on which he published the firmly anti-slavery Alton Observer in Alton, Illinois, across the river from St. Louis.
Lovejoy was a product of his times and his upbringing, and he was not without prejudices. He was a bigoted anti-Catholic. Up until the last year or so of his death at the age of 35, he was against slavery but saw the solution as the return of enslaved Africans to their home continent, not abolition, freedom and “40 acres and a mule.” However, he was a devout Christian minister who tried to live by his beliefs no matter what the cost.
As Simon reports, Lovejoy’s death had a tremendous national impact. “Those who killed Lovejoy and destroyed his printing press thought they were helping the cause of slavery, but they could not have helped the antislavery cause more. His death became one of the two greatest boosts the antislavery movement had from the day of independence to the outbreak of the Civil War, the other being the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin… Within weeks after Lovejoy’s death, membership in antislavery societies multiplied, and antislavery sentiment increased.”
At a meeting in Union, Ohio following the murder, John Brown made his public commitment to the antislavery cause, saying, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”
Following Lovejoy’s death, Wendell Phillips in Boston gave up his law practice to join William Lloyd Garrison’s group of abolitionists. Phillips became one of the most eloquent and consistent, national abolitionist leaders and a prominent labor movement supporter.
Simon cogently puts Lovejoy’s death in its proper context: “Most changes in history are not made by intellectual giants who sweep across the pages of our history books but rather by people who do not seem fitted to stand foremost in a great struggle; they simply have certain beliefs and are willing patiently but firmly and courageously to support them.”
A more recent example is Cameron Austin of Shelbyville, Illinois, who died after a years-long struggle with hepatitis a couple of months ago at the age of 54. In the words of rank-and-file labor leader Mike Griffin, Cameron was an autoworker who was “a devout member of United Auto Workers Local 751, representing workers at Caterpillar in Decatur, Il. During the labor wars in the nineties, as a rank and file member, Cameron became a leader and an international ambassador on behalf of his besieged local. He was instrumental in keeping top UAW officials from selling out the more than 150 illegally terminated strikers fired by Caterpillar in a ruthless assault on its employees nationwide … In the more than six years Local 751 worked without a contract, Cameron fought valiantly to bring justice to thousands of Caterpillar workers throughout the Cat chain.”
Griffin explains in his moving obituary that “in the Caterpillar plant, Cameron served as an employee assistance representative who worked tirelessly to lift his brothers and sisters from the trappings of alcoholism and drug abuse. There is no question that Cameron saved many fellow workers from losing their jobs and families, and was always available to counsel fellow union members discreetly and in confidence…
“In the end, when the physical heart failed Cameron, the heart that he gave to his precious union, to his fellow man, never wavered, and it was that heart that defined the existence of Cameron Austin.”
Follow your heart. That’s the way forward for us as individuals and as a progressive movement for fundamental, revolutionary change. Follow our hearts, live by love, work for a society and a world in which love is the motivating force guiding how we organize our economic, political, social and cultural life.
And act on your beliefs no matter what the cost. Let conscience be our guide. Build a supportive movement culture that enables more and more people to do this. These ways and these ways only keep us on the right road, allow each of us to use properly the one thing we are all given, our one life.
* Ted Glick is on the 83rd day of a Climate Emergency Fast.