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Reclaiming Garrison

THE TIME is right to restore the legacy of an authentic American hero. Bostonian by choice, a moral agitator by calling, William Lloyd Garrison was indeed, as his most recent biographer Henry Mayer described him, ''all on fire." Born 200 years ago in 1805, Garrison's relentless expose of slavery helped win the freedom of three million Americans.

On the Commonwealth Mall in Back Bay, a statue commemorates Garrison. Seated, his face bears the look of a man ready for action. His defiant famous quote is there with him: ''I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard."

That statement was part of an apology by Garrison to his ''three million brothers and sisters" who were then in slavery in the United States. In an earlier speech, he called for their ''gradual" emancipation and subsequently repented for his rhetorical complicity with evil in a new call for immediate abolition.

Beginning in 1831 he published a journal of ''agitation" entitled The Liberator.

Every Friday for 35 years until 1865 and the passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, his voice reverberated off those pages.

He founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society, lectured across the country, challenged any authority that accommodated slavery, including religions of every denomination, the courts, the law, and the Constitution itself.

He came close to being lynched on Boston Common by those enraged by his speech challenging every element of society to end their moral complicity with that ''peculiar institution."

When it was thought that The Liberator was connected to a slave uprising in the South, the Legislature of South Carolina offered a $5,000 bounty for his capture and demise.

He understood back then what we understand as common sense now. No one should own another human being. Today, it's hard to understand the context of the ridicule and resistance that Abolitionists experienced.

The Abolitionists set out to overcome a well-entrenched institution supported by cultural, political, religious, legal, and economic powers.

There were concurring voices. Here in Massachusetts, Senator Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, Governor John A. Andrews, and Wendell Phillips all made abolition a part of their life's work. As did the Grimke sisters from South Carolina, a cadre of black Abolitionists across the North, Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois, Theodore Weld, and many others.

But it was Garrison's voice that was the standard of the Abolitionist movement. Threatened, ridiculed, assaulted, Garrison never wavered and never compromised in his assault on the moral evil of slavery.

After having ''discovered" the dazzling rhetorical power of ex-slave Frederick Douglass, Garrison gave him entry to audiences across the North, supported him in the writing of his autobiography, and helped buy his freedom.

They had a falling out over Douglass's desire to publish a journal of his own. The breach was only partially repaired during the war years, and many ascribe the separation to Garrison's pride and obstinacy.

The Abolitionists called their country to a moral and spiritual destination that was still in the future, as all prophets do. They were right and their moral common sense prevailed. Garrison was indeed ''all on fire," and he continues to light our efforts to end social wrongs.

Boston should reclaim Garrison, whose 200th birthday is on Dec. 12.

His former home in Roxbury should be opened to the public. One of our local colleges should endow a William Lloyd Garrison chair for the study of the abolition of social wrongs. And the United States Postal Service should issue a commemorative set of stamps featuring Garrison and other Abolitionists.

Philip Mangano is executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

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