Six Western and Central New York locations hosted the New York State Poor People’s Campaign during a four-day National Emergency Freedom School Bus Tour this past April. This was one of 28 such statewide tours around the country to raise our voices against the real national emergencies of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation doing so much harm to our communities.
Two dozen of us traveled together, singing and breaking bread at every stop. We were hosted by Poor People’s Campaign regional committees everywhere we went and shared both stories of pain and stories of resilience.
A Poor People’s Movement of Tremendous Significance
We drew strength from learning that we’re part of a strong and deep tradition of struggle for liberation in New York State. As we stood where Frederick Douglass had stood in Ithaca and spent time under Harriet Tubman’s roof in Auburn, we began to find points of reflection for our work today.
Since the tour, I’ve been inspired to read and reflect more on the movement to end slavery in the U.S., a poor people’s movement of tremendous significance. In winning the emancipation of 4 million enslaved people, the movement vanquished the ruling slaveocracy and achieved the largest confiscation and redistribution of private property in our nation’s history.
North Star Country
Our state played a key role in this victory. Historian Milton Sernett has called upstate New York “North Star Country.” The North Star gave enslaved people an essential orientation for their escape, and this region was especially strong in its support of the abolitionist cause. The North Star was also the name of Douglass’s anti-slavery newspaper in Rochester, NY that was instrumental in orienting the general population about the fight against the slave power. Many of us on our bus tour came away asking: How can the lessons from “North Star Country” provide us with orientation for collective liberation today?
Most of our education on this time period, if we remember much at all, focuses on the big confrontation, the Civil War. But what came before Fort Sumter, Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation? What sort of movement building was necessary before the final blows could be struck to defeat the slaveocracy in this country?
What sort of movement building was necessary before the final blows could be struck to defeat the slaveocracy in this country?
Go Down, Moses
Our tour started in Buffalo at the fast-flowing Niagara River. If you pay attention, you may hear that the river gurgles “Moses,” the code name of Harriet Tubman, who led fugitives to the ferry in Buffalo to cross into freedom in Canada. (“Go down, Moses/ Way down to Egypt land/ Tell old Pharaoh/ Let my people go!”)
For Buffalo resident Dennice Barr, “these waters are sacred,” for both her indigenous and Black ancestors who met on the Canadian side of the river. Barr noted that not all of Canada was a land of freedom — she shared painful stories of abuse that her Native family has suffered there in the residential schools and in the streets.
Elmira is one such place. At the city’s date of incorporation in 1864, its main feature was a brutal prisoner-of-war camp that held 12,000 Confederate soldiers known as “Hell-mira.” Now Elmira has two maximum-security prisons, three and a half miles apart. Becca Forsyth said that Elmira has a reputation of being a place where people are sent to be discarded.
In the midst of this sobering reality, at each stop we heard notes of encouragement from the ancestors. (“Steal away/ Steal away home.”) Elmira’s Frederick Douglass Memorial AME Zion Church, pastored by Poor People’s Campaign leader Rev. Michael Bell, was the site of our Poor People’s Hearing. The focus of the hearing was on the injustice of mass incarceration. The church was founded in 1841 by eight men who escaped slavery and were inspired by Douglass’s words. The church housed an early “freedom school” where the African-American community gathered to learn to read and write, according to Rev. Bell.
In the Flow of History: Speaking Tours in Early Stages of a Movement
We began to see ourselves in the flow of history. Small groups with a message whose time has come can change the course of society — but we have to start somewhere. In the early 1840s, long before the abolition movement was much of a force to be reckoned with, Frederick Douglass and a group of colleagues traveled tirelessly through small towns throughout New York and other states, speaking out against the evils of slavery. They faced bad roads, hostile crowds and were often barred from speaking in churches or other indoor spaces, sometimes because of their commitment to intersectionality (before intersectionality was a thing). The abolitionists were thrown out of a Baptist church in Ithaca, had to convene at a tavern in Trumansburg and were forced to speak in the park in Syracuse, in part because one speaker, Quaker feminist Abby Kelley, was female.
Though these speaking tours didn’t end slavery immediately, they tilled the ideological soil in upstate New York. They were the beginnings of a robust network of resistance necessary for the next stage of the movement. “North Star Country” would be an essential part of the Underground Railroad after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when it was ruled that escaped slaves could be caught and dragged back to slavery wherever they were found in the United States.
Our tour was only four days and didn’t require the abolitionists’ commitment to months-long tours with a hundred speaking engagements a year. Even so, I felt parallels. Meeting people each day, people struggling often in isolation with problems that could not be solved alone, made me aware that our statewide tour was a necessary step. In order to build a united movement, we have to know each other and know our people.
In order to build a united movement, we have to know each other and know our people.
A Moral Movement Rises Against the Odds
In the 1840s, the abolitionists faced staggering odds. The slave owners were the controlling political and economic force in the country. Slavery was a cruel subjugation of Black minds and bodies and was at the same time a hugely profitable economic endeavor based on the free labor of 2.5 million enslaved human beings. This model in all of its grotesque horrors had to be enforced by firearms and bullwhips, and also protected and justified in the courts, schools, churches and in the media. Even the science of the day provided so-called “evidence” for a white supremacist society. Such an unjust system required a huge institutional apparatus to convince all of society that the slave system was good and natural. The slaveocracy required a population ignorant of the true nature of the system.
The early abolitionists, then, when they began calling for the immediate emancipation of the enslaved population, were a few voices crying for justice in a wilderness of opposition. “The pen, the purse and the sword are united against the simple truth,” Douglass would say later.
Against this powerful and supremely organized foe, some early abolitionists chose not to call for “winnable demands.” They were not aiming for reforms or “small victories” that would animate their base to strive for the next small victory.
These radicals agitated for full, complete and immediate liberation because their cause was just and because anything less was to abandon people to suffer, something they saw as a sin against humanity and God. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, in the first issue of his newspaper The Liberator, wrote, “…Tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
I hear echoes of Garrison and his friends in the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Critics say our demands are too numerous and too broad. We must “be practical” or “focus on one issue,” they say. We respond that we won’t settle for anything less than ending all forms of oppression, and that we can’t defeat one evil without defeating the others. The Poor People’s Campaign is a call to reclaim our moral center, to stop negotiating, compromising or fighting other poor folks for scraps from the billionaires’ tables. Even where only two or three are gathered to raise our voices for what is right, there is the spark of a movement.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a call to reclaim our moral center, to stop negotiating, compromising or fighting other poor folks for scraps from the billionaires’ tables.
A New Moment of ‘Moral Suasion’
This, it seems, is the essence of today’s task, in a new moment of “moral suasion.” This is the moment for denouncing evil wherever it raises its head. Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the national Campaign, quotes the Hebrew prophet Isaiah when he says, “Woe unto you who legislate evil, who rob the poor of their rights and make widows and orphans your prey.” As a Southern preacher, Rev. Barber invokes the deepest Judeo-Christian values when he denounces politicians who inflict “policy violence.” He calls the American people to be faithful to these sacred values — faithful to the radical message that systemic racism must be abolished, that poverty can be and must be abolished. In a land of such abundance, poverty is a sin perpetrated by the rich against the poor. Naming and denouncing the interconnected evils that have subjugated 140 million people in the United States to poverty is an anchor of the stage of moral suasion.
Studying history can help us to understand the moment we’re in, and it can help us to not grow weary, though the road be long. Before the movement to end slavery could draw thousands to its cause and ultimately overthrow the slave owners and abolish the slave economy, an era of moral suasion was required. It was an era of unflinching denunciation of the problem — showing the deep immorality of a system based on exploitation and human misery. This was the era when Frederick Douglass came of age.
Douglass ‘Steals Himself’ and Tells His Story
In 1838 at the age of 20, Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland, and speaking as a fugitive before audiences in the North, he would say: “I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them.” He began a new life as a laborer in Massachusetts with his wife Anna. By 1841 he was speaking regularly against slavery. In 1842 he became a full-time lecturer on the Northeast US abolition circuit as part of the American Anti-Slavery Society under Garrison’s mentorship.
One place Douglass frequented was the St. James AME Zion Church in Ithaca. Our tour stopped there briefly to hear from St. James’s current pastor Rev. Paris Price and former pastor Rev. Michael Bell. They shared the rich histories of people like Thomas James, an escaped slave who helped to build the church, which has become a center of the African-American community in Ithaca for the better part of two centuries. As we stood in the two-story wood-frame building, not only did it seem that the walls could talk — they sang.
Historian W.E.B. Du Bois analyzes the significance of fugitives like Douglass for the movement to end slavery:
Not only was the fugitive slave important because of the actual loss involved, but for potentialities in the future. These free Negroes were furnishing a leadership for the mass of the black workers, and especially they were furnishing a text for the abolition idealists. Fugitive slaves, like Frederick Douglass and others … increased the number of abolitionists by thousands and spelled the doom of slavery.
Douglass was conscious of what distinguished him from his abolitionist colleagues: “They cannot speak as I can from experience,” he said. “They cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can, for I have felt these wounds.”
Douglass’s personal story was powerful, and he told it in a way that galvanized audiences. He was a living contradiction of the lies taught to white Northerners about enslaved Blacks in the South. Here was a Black man, a fugitive slave with no formal schooling, who quoted the Bible, the Constitution and European literature with ease. Douglass sometimes bristled at the raving descriptions of himself in the newspapers, as he saw them as backhanded compliments that revealed writers’ racism in their astonishment. But because of his public role, he knew he was under constant scrutiny and would have to be a model representative of his people and his cause. His professionalism was a serious threat to the slave power because he destroyed the lies constructed about people of African descent to justify continued exploitation.
We Need Many Douglasses and Tubmans Today
Is it a stretch to say that the Poor People’s Campaign has begun to do something similar in our time? The Campaign has been built by the leadership and the genius of the poor and dispossessed. People who struggle to feed their families despite working multiple jobs, people who can’t afford medical treatment to save the life of a loved one, people who are locked up because they couldn’t afford bail or an attorney, people who aren’t poor because they’re immigrants but are rather immigrants because they’re poor — are these today’s Frederick Douglasses and Harriet Tubmans? In the Campaign, those who “have felt these wounds” are the ones who must rise together to raise the consciousness of the rest of society.
Douglass would likely agree. In his speeches and writings, he often quoted the 19th century British poet Lord Byron, who wrote, “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” Striking the blow, in this case, must be understood as developing the analysis and strategy to lead a movement to victory. As Douglass’s experience grew, it became unsatisfying for him to simply “tell his story” and let others do the theorizing. He ultimately broke with the Garrisonians when his analysis led him to conclude that the stage of moral suasion was giving way to a new stage, a time where strategic negotiation in the political arena would be necessary.
Today we need many Frederick Douglasses and many Harriet Tubmans. We don’t just need to mobilize bodies to the polls or the streets — more importantly in this moment, we need to identify, develop and unite leaders from among the ranks of 140 million poor and low-income people in this country. People who can speak deep truths from experience about the impacts of this predatory system on our people and the earth. People like Douglass who are willing to study, debate and theorize, making the struggle our school and building schools for the struggle. People like Tubman who aren’t content with freeing themselves but are compelled to work for collective liberation, no matter what the slaveholder law says. People who are fed up with being used by one section of the ruling class against the other, who are hungry to use our minds and bodies to forge strategies and solutions that will share the abundance of the world with everyone.
Today we need many Frederick Douglasses and many Harriet Tubmans.
Tim Shenk is the coordinator of the Committee on US-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) and is a member of the New York State Coordinating Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his partner Alicia and their one-year-old daughter, Emma.