Paul Johnson: PBS documentary spotlights abolition movement

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 01:49 AM

One refrain I’ve heard since the horrific violence against schoolchildren and educators in Newtown, Conn., is understandable, but one with which I politely and firmly disagree.
Many commentators have said that the unimaginable killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in the wake of spasms of other mass violence dating back 14 years to Columbine High School in Colorado, reflect a society in decline.
No one can ignore the disturbing nature of the shootings against innocent people in what should be safe places – a public school in a Connecticut village; a movie theater in a suburban Colorado community; a college campus in the hills of Virginia; a parking lot of a shopping complex in an Arizona city.
But I contend that these awful incidents don’t represent the arc of early 21st century America, only a horrible aberration from it. An upcoming documentary on public television that traces a dark time in our nation’s past makes my point.
At 9 p.m. Tuesday, the Public Broadcasting Service program American Experience will debut a three-part documentary called “The Abolitionists.” The show will be broadcast here through WUNC-TV.
Five actors and actresses portray a group of activists in the 19th century who forever changed the direction of the country through a decades-long campaign to end slavery. Former slave Frederick Douglass, newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, militant John Brown and renounced slaveholder Angelina Grimke symbolize the crusade against a blight that stained the nation at its inception — a country founded on a document proclaiming all men are created equal allowed some human beings to own others.
“The Abolitionists” is timed to coincide with the recognition this year of the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Confederate states on Jan. 1, 1863.
In a preview for “The Abolitionists,” one of the producers said the filmmakers took their approach with the documentary because the campaign against slavery showed how ordinary Americans, by force of will, ground away a fundamental wrong.
“When these people started their movement (in the early 19th century), it was the absolute lifeblood of the nation’s economy. Not just the South — slavery was just woven into the fabric of the country,” said Rob Rapley, one of the filmmakers.
And that’s my point about the reaction to the horrors of Newtown. Today, we live in an increasingly enlightened society where equality is seen as a necessary and worthy goal, where mistreatment of a large group of people based on their race or origin is completely unacceptable. A century and a half ago in America, opposite attitudes held sway.
One point that “The Abolitionists” will make forcefully is that powerful sectors of American society — politicians, business leaders, ministers — at one time either supported slavery or turned a neglectful blind eye to the abomination. Slavery was an accepted practice, from the white residents of towns and villages who didn’t think twice about public sales of black men, women and children to the preachers who perverted Scripture to justify slavery as a social practice.
One preview scene of “The Abolitionists” symbolizes the time. A young Grimke, who grew up in a slaveholding family in Charleston, S.C., is speaking with her well-to-do mother about Grimke’s rising disgust with slavery.
“Mother, it is my duty to bear testimony,” Grimke says in a parlor of their Charlestonian home.
“Angelina, mind your own business,” her mother replies.
“It is my business,” Grimke shouts, rising from her seat in audacious anger.
Indeed, Grimke became so committed to the cause against slavery that she left South Carolina, renounced her ownership of any human being and became a public speaker in the North against slavery. Far from being welcomed and praised for her courage at the time, Grimke was hated and vilified, not only by her fellow Southerners but many in the North who saw nothing immoral about slavery.
I don’t know how to put this delicately, because there’s no way to do so. For all the horrors and heartbreak, I believe more in the virtues of today when tragedies such as Newtown are an alarming break from the times, not 150 or more years ago when evils such as slavery were a reflection of each moment.

pjohnson@hpe.com | 888-3528