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A man ahead of his time

NEWTON -- It was just about 10 miles down the road from here that William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist firebrand, made some famous history.

On July 4, 1854, Garrison scandalized the area by burning the US Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act in a field in Framingham. The Constitution he viewed as an unacceptable moral compromise. The Fugitive Slave Act was worse, much worse.

Over the weekend, five generations of his descendants gathered at the Newton Marriott to consider the ties that bind them. This December -- the exact date is uncertain -- will mark the 200th anniversary of Garrison's birth.

In our history-obsessed city, Garrison's history -- and by extension, that of his movement -- is sadly overlooked. There are many reasons for that, but Boston's moment as the nation's conscience is something to celebrate.

Garrison was editor and publisher of The Liberator, a newspaper devoted to emancipation. It published near present-day Government Center. Garrison was, indisputably, one of the most important voices in the move to end slavery. Uncompromising, confrontational, and possessed of great moral brilliance, he convinced skeptical New Englanders that slavery was indeed their concern, and helped to create the abolitionist movement.

The family reunion included exhibits at the Museum of Afro-American History and a big event Saturday night at Tremont Temple, a place where Garrison often spoke at antislavery rallies.

William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper never had a circulation of more than 800 or so readers. But it had an outsized influence, as Garrison gained fame on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the leading dissenters on slavery, which he opposed as early as the 1820s.

It's hard to recapture the radicalism his view represented at the time. The South was firmly committed to slavery; most Northerners were indifferent to it. As to the idea that blacks deserved to be treated equally, even many liberals disagreed with Garrison on that.

Garrison's descendants had never gathered before. Several said the importance of his legacy has always been clearly understood in the family with some knowing a lot about him, some just a little. His descendants have included a founder of The Nation magazine, a longtime president of the National Urban League, and several journalists.

''It's funny how one's forebears bear on you," said Lloyd Garrison, a retired correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine. The racial unrest of the 1960s led Lloyd Garrison to spend years covering Africa, writing about a continent then struggling to rid itself of Colonial oppression. He saw a parallel between that and William Lloyd Garrison's interest in the struggles of his time. ''I guess I took some of that Garrisonian perspective with me," he said Saturday.

Two scholars, historian David Blight of Yale and Lois Brown of Mount Holyoke, spoke eloquently about Garrison as an abolitionist and as an early feminist. Blight put his finger on why Garrison caused so much unrest.

''Utopians are bothersome people," he said. ''They trouble the water. They break the rules, disturb the peace, and irk us out of complacency, forcing unwanted confrontations with the eternal conflict between the possible and ideal."

Garrison stopped publishing The Liberator in 1865 -- a decision many considered premature -- and celebrated the victory of his life's great cause, the end of slavery. He died in 1879, admired by many of those who once despised him.

As Blight has powerfully pointed out, much of the history of the Civil War has become sanitized. That's been unfortunate for Garrison, who can't be appreciated at all without understanding his courage and outsized passion.

For a while over the weekend, some of that history came blazing back to life, in a way that a Freedom Trail can barely suggest.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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