Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., recipient of the 2021 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award, pointed to the 19th-century anti-slavery journalist as an example of someone who acted with courage for the betterment of mankind and not in self-interest.
Lovejoy, a Maine native, was killed in Alton, Ill., in 1837 as he defended his newspaper’s press from a mob inflamed by his repeated condemnation of slavery.
“He laid it all on the line,” Pitts said in an interview marking the award Tuesday. “… He did it for a cause that he had no firsthand involvement in. He wasn’t enslaved. He was unlikely to be enslaved. He was a white guy. … This vindicates my feeling that the issue is not about self-interest. It’s about the larger human tribe, about who is being oppressed, who is being stepped on, who is being suppressed in their voting.
“Each of us,” he said, “has an obligation to whoever it is in our human family that is in need and is being left out. … We all have an obligation to that person.”
Pitts was introduced by President David A. Greene, who connected the work of the Miami Herald columnist to his 19th-century predecessor. Lovejoy’s persistent protests, Greene said, might seem like something from the distant past, but the world remains “a place of persistent inequality, violence, and cruelty. The evidence of that is with us every day,” he said. “I join many others in asking myself how I am complicit, how I benefit from racism, and what I can do to make the world more just.”
For Pitts, whose writings on race have made him, like Lovejoy, the target of threats over his 45-year career, there is a need to act, not out of fear, but out of commitment to the ideal of America and the unifying principles that are its foundation. “What is it that binds us?” Pitts asked, in response to former Miami Herald editor Mindy Marqués, a member of Colby’s Lovejoy Award Selection Committee who joined Pitts in conversation for the live-streamed event. “What makes us a country? And I submit that it should be this sense of national mission.”
The oft-repeated words used to describe the pillars of the new country at the time of its formation—liberty and justice for all, that all men and women are created equal—must be put into action, he said, if we are to be motivated less by fear and more by hope. “I think we’ve got to figure out a way to get people to want to move based on American ideals,” Pitts said.
Today’s political climate, marked by what he called “the anti-fact movement,” is an obstacle to real discussion of issues where opinions may differ. Better teaching of media literacy, civics, and critical thinking is crucial to preparing citizens for the America of the future, and much of that work must be done by people who won’t see the fruits of their labors.
Pitts cited a proverb, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they’ll never sit in.”
“Where is the investment in doing something that is not for me and now, but for … my kids and my kids’ kids?” he said. “There seems to be so much short-sightedness and fear governing so much of what we do.”