Heroes in our nation’s past who preceded Lovejoy helped to create a new political order. George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson come to mind. They set a new standard of self-governance on the face of the earth, yet they left one great moral scourge untouched. Slavery and freedom could not co-exist for long. It was the indomitable spirit of Elijah Lovejoy that helped to clarify this moral contradiction. In so doing, he helped to change the course of our nation’s history.
” I take from Lovejoy’s life, and from his death, a clear and simple message. He felt blessed to have been born an American, and to have had many privileges.”
You probably remember that one of his biographers said of Lovejoy that he had been “bred and nurtured in the belief that slavery was an institution politically incompatible with the constitution, and religiously incompatible with the laws of God.” Those were precepts he learned in his youth here in Maine, in his formative years in Albion and later at Waterville.
You probably also are familiar with one of President Cotter’s favorite quotes about Lovejoy which helps to establish his place in the American pantheon of moral ideas. Lovejoy said, and I quote, “As long as I am an American citizen, and as long as American blood runs in these veins, I shall hold myself at liberty to speak, to write, and to publish whatever I please on any subject,” And then he said, “if the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God, and if I die, I have determined to make my grave in Alton. I have sworn eternal opposition to slavery, and by the blessing of God I will never turn back.” Thus we see in him a pivotal person who exemplified the national need to reconcile our moral practices with. our political deals.
There were many in that day who thought compromise was expedient; but Elijah Lovejoy was not among them. His view on the brotherhood of humanity was implacable. I take from Lovejoy’s life, and from his death, a clear and simple message. He felt blessed to have been born an American, and to have had many privileges. A fine family and home in Albion; a wonderful education here at Waterville; and a deep love of the liberation that came through the life and death of Jesus Christ. He believed all those blessings beheld him to a great obligation. His soul was bound to the moral truth that bondage and freedom could not co-exist.
It is my thesis tonight that Lovejoy’s work is not complete. The ideals for which he stood are still fully to materialize for many Americans. This, even as we commemorate the 154th year since his death. In some larger metaphysical sense, we, as a nation, remain enslaved by race. Not physical bondage anymore, but mental and social enslavement to ancient perceptions.
The very idea of race is itself an artificial one; indeed, ask any number of morticians, and they will tell you that at the end we all look strikingly alike. And we know, as Lovejoy knew, that when we approach the throne of grace in that time when our earthly chores are ended, we will be judged by far more important measures than the color of our skin, the shapes of our eyes, or the texture of our hair. Yet, in all our lives, still today in this nation, we know that our perceptions are shaped by this artificial matter of color: where we go to school, where to work, where to live, whom to love…All of these are powerfully affected by one measure above all – the color of our skin.
Lovejoy had a deep moral hunger for Americans to live together as brothers and sisters. He wrote once, “I have lived about eight years in a slave state, and excepting one or two instances, I do not recall ever having heard slave holders criticized for neglecting or abusing their slaves. At the same time, I have seen the slaves sitting out in the carriage box through all the service, while their masters and mistresses, whom they drove to church, were worshipping with great devoutness within.”
The reason Lovejoy found all this morally offensive, is that he took seriously levitical law and Christian teachings that each of us should treat the other only as we would wish to be treated. To do otherwise, he said so often, was to deny those very principles that made us so fortunate in the first place. We can see the moral richness, and yet the simplicity (one might even say felicity) of such an idea. But if Lovejoy were to return to St. Louis, the city from which he was driven by slaveholders a century and a half ago, he would find his dream had hardly been fulfilled; although, or course, he would see signs of progress. He would find that the bonds or brotherhood had still failed fully to form. I say so because of a remarkable happenstance. It concerns St. Louis, where Lovejoy’s career began in earnest. I told you before that I believe we are prisoners of the perception of race. I find it a striking coincidence that St. Louis turned out to be the city where our of the finest pieces of journalism on the subject of racial perception was done not long ago. I will return to that in a moment.
The point I wish to make first is about the matter of perception. It has something to do with moral truth in the modern age. We are all imprisoned by that which we see when we look at each other across the chasms of race. We see more (and sometimes less) than a whole person. In each encounter, we see the map of social history already implanted in our brains. The physical freeing of peoples of color occurred first with the end of the Civil War, and gradually in this century, guaranteed rights evolved through the rule of law. What we have not accomplished through all of this yet, is to learn the mastery of the idea of brotherhood for which Elijah Lovejoy, and so many others, have given their lives. These perceptions contribute to the alienation or our society and to its diminishment.
I will tell you that I agree with Elijah Lovejoy, that when we work and live together in a common bond of understanding, we are stronger than when we permit ourselves to retreat to hostile islands. No place in America today is the hostile island more visible than in our cities. It is alarming to see what has occurred in the once vital centers of so many regions of our nation. Now they are the reserves of the very rich and the very poor. In such circumstance, there is a constant devaluation of the quality of life. This is a process that has been at work in our nation since the end of World War II.
With the decline of the wartime defense populations, the cities began to lose some of their vitality. Public policy hastened the process. Highways were built through the Federal highway trust fund that created cheap and easy transportation out of the cities; housing subsidies helped suburbs to spring up across the landscape; taxation policy and the GI Bill all worked together to create the American suburb; and in most instances, people of color were firmly excluded. The city has been left to founder. You remember that in the 1950’s public policy tended to favor tearing down buildings in cities, but replacing them with little. Moreover, the school desegregation decision of 1954 hastened the outflight of the white middle class.
The question that has been asked over and over again, whether by Elijah Lovejoy, or by Harriet Beecher Stowe, or more recently by Martin Luther King, has been this: What is it in America that makes it so difficult for Americans to learn to be one people; to view each other mutually through a prism of dignity? For sure, the separation or our society, as visible in many of our cities, is a sign of a social disintegration that would he far less catastrophic if Americans were to find themselves on common ground. But I am here to suggest to you that the single, most difficult obstacle to common ground is this issue of ancient mis-perception and mis-portrayal.
I mentioned modern-day St. Louis, a case in point. ABC News did a remarkable piece of journalism in St. Louis not too long ago. It appeared on a Thursday night on “Prime Time Live”. The broadcast concerned two young Americans, one whose name was John, and the other whose name was Glenn. John and Glenn were of average size, looks and demeanor. They were comparably educated, and from very similar backgrounds. The difference is John was white; Glenn was black. Each was equipped with a concealed camera, then they went about doing mundane things.
John went to a store; a salesman immediately materialized to wait on him. The salesman was solicitous. After John departed, Glenn arrived at the same store. Was he greeted warmly by the salesperson? No. Was he shunned by the salesperson? Well, not exactly, What the salesman did was to tail John around the store, lurking behind him, waiting to see if he would shoplift, rather than ever approaching him to ask if be could be of service in an actual transaction.
The same sort of outcome occurred when John went to buy a car. Only a few minutes before, the salesman had offered John a no-money down deal. When Glenn arrived 10 minutes later, he waited for 10 minutes just to be assisted. Then he was told that he would have to pay $2000 down; and indeed, the price he was quoted for the car was $500 higher.
At a St. Louis apartment house John was cordially welcomed. Immediately, he was given an opportunity to look at an apartment. Only a few minutes later, Glenn was told the apartment had been rented hours before. At the end of the broadcast, Glenn would say: “You walk down with a suit and tie and it doesn’t matter. Someone will make determinations about you that affect the quality of your life, and the only basis is the one thing that will not change about you. I am not going to take off black skin. I am going to be black forever.”
I tell you about this story for two reasons: first, because it was one of the most remarkable examples of how the function of mis-perception destroys the dignity of individuals and erodes the fabric of our society. This is the slavery of perception that has not died.
I do not mean to suggest to you that these are simple issues. What I do mean to suggest to you is that our nation still suffers from the stereotypes that fed the climate that permitted slavery to exist. And farther, I tell you this story because I am struck by the fact that a group of broadcasters found a way to help the nation see, in one poignant picture, what the corrosive power of stereotyping and mis-perception has done to the quality of life in our nation. Indeed, the very fact that we celebrate Elijah Lovejoy as a heroic defense of a free press compels me to ask a question. Just how well are the present-day custodians of that free press performing? I mean especially concerning the port royal of peoples of color? Does that poor portrayal contribute to our social regression?
“We incarcerate three times as many young black American men as we graduate from colleges and universities.”
I believe we are obligated to shed light on all the moral truths of our time. The fact that ABC News fulfilled that obligation is worthy of special note. But what is also noteworthy and disturbing about its effort is the rarity of it. Eventually, all Americans suffer from the persistence of bigotry. I mention St. Louis only as one example. Because of the conditions of our cities, and because of the wasted lives within them, I believe we will persistently lose ground in the global arena.
We incarcerate three times as many young black American men as we graduate from colleges and universities. This is a telling signal. It speaks of a society headed in the wrong direction. It is a direction that does no honor to such heroes as Martin Luther King, and Elijah Lovejoy. They gave their lives to this cause because they believed their truth would leave us a better America. Moreover, they believed our salvation as a society depended on the freedom of our institutions. They did not anticipate that we might become indifferent about such important matters. They assumed we custodians already understood that eternal vigilance was the price of freedom. Occasions such as this give us an important opportunity to be reminded.
In 1956, when Arthur Hays Sulzberger received your great honor here at Colby, he said:
“We must demonstrate that freedom is not just a passing phase in the history of mankind, not merely a light that was kindled for a few hundred years only to be blotted out by brute force and tyranny. Knowledge released man from the original yoke of oppression. Knowledge can keep that yoke from pressing him back to bondage.”
True, but only if we beget an uncommon vigilance in pursuit of human dignity for all Americans. Yet, we know it is not easy to afflict the comfortable and challenge the status quo. Elijah Parish Lovejoy understood that better than anyone.
In tribute to his courage., John Heiskell said in 1958 here at Colby: “There is a pantheon that is not built of stone. Yet it exists imperishable in annals and in memory. It honors all those brave souls who have suffered for conscience and conviction. In it are inscribed the names of exemplars or freedom of the press who have, in the words of St. Paul, endured afflictions; who have fought the good fight as long as it was granted to them to follow the course; and in dedication and devotion, even unto death, have kept the faith.”
This is why we honor Elijah Parish Lovejoy, he set such an example of enduring and unshakable faith. Our times are all but bereft of such figures of courage. By holding this remarkable torch aloft, year in and year out, Colby College bids us all to raise our voices of moral conviction against a tide of indifference. We owe no less to Lovejoy and to our legacy of free institutions in a still free nation.
Good night, and Godspeed.