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The Slaves Freed Themselves


Jamelle’s column today is absolutely right on.

Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party freed the slaves. They helped set freedom in motion and eventually codified it into law with the 13th Amendment, but they were not themselves responsible for the end of slavery. They were not the ones who brought about its final destruction.

Who freed the slaves? The slaves freed the slaves.

“Slave resistance,” as the historian Manisha Sinha points out in “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition,” “lay at the heart of the abolition movement.”

“Prominent slave revolts marked the turn toward immediate abolition,” Sinha writes, and “fugitive slaves united all factions of the movement and led the abolitionists to justify revolutionary resistance to slavery.”

When secession turned to war, it was enslaved people who turned a narrow conflict over union into a revolutionary war for freedom. “From the first guns at Sumter, the strongest advocates of emancipation were the slaves themselves,” the historian Ira Berlin wrote in 1992. “Lacking political standing or public voice, forbidden access to the weapons of war, slaves tossed aside the grand pronouncements of Lincoln and other Union leaders that the sectional conflict was only a war for national unity and moved directly to put their own freedom — and that of their posterity — atop the national agenda.”

This all goes back to W.E.B. DuBois’ classic book Black Reconstruction, from 1935. No one listened to DuBois at the time; historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction were deeply committed to white supremacy in this era. But historians in recent years, including Sinha and Berlin, have fleshed out DuBois’ points. I centered this point in Chapter 2 of A History of America in Ten Strikes. Really, the slave general strike, as DuBois described it, is by far the most significant labor action in American history. As as this Juneteenth rolls by, the first time that large number of whites have ever paid attention to it, it is absolutely critical to remember this.

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