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Academic Minute

Dr. Stacey Robertson, Bradley University – Modern Abolitionists

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Stacey Robertson of Bradley University explains how many of the tactics used by nineteenth-century abolitionists have been adapted and employed by those seeking to eradicate modern forms of slavery.

Stacey Robertson is the Oglesby Endowed Professor of American Heritage at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. She is Director of Bradley’s Women’s Studies program and in 2010 published, Hearts Beating for Liberty: Women Abolitionists in the Old Northwest. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

About Dr. Robertson

Dr. Stacey Robertson – Modern Abolitionists

Nineteenth-century abolitionists were audacious, passionate, quirky men and women who expected to demolish the powerful institution of slavery.  Their efforts highlighted the divisions in our nation leading up to the Civil War. Despite that traumatic national conflict and the success of those abolitionists to outlaw state-sanction slavery, a different kind of bondage persists to this day.  Though it is illegal worldwide, millions of people are forced to labor against their will for the profit of others.  Men, women, and children of all races and ethnic backgrounds are fighting in militaries, laboring in factories, and ensnarled in the sex trade with no option for escape. 

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Support for modern-day abolitionism has exploded in recent years.  There are hundreds of books and films exploring the topic from every imaginable angle.  Scholars are hosting conferences and high school students and churches are organizing in their local communities. Some universities, like Bradley, are sponsoring year-long workshops to raise awareness.

The reason for this upsurge in consciousness is the movement’s sophisticated use of the latest information technology.  Like nineteenth-century abolitionists, today’s antislavery activists know how to educate and motivate using the communication tools available to them.  In the 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison relied on the printing revolution -- with its steam press and cheap paper -- to spread his message across the nation.  He edited his own newspaper, the fiery Liberator, and relied on a sophisticated network, primarily operated by African American distributors.  He stirred up a pamphlet storm that blew across the South and enraged slaveholders.  Garrison peppered his literature with support from the rich and famous – including former President John Quincy Adams and wealthy New Yorker Arthur Tappan.

Today’s abolitionists tweet and twitter, they use Facebook and text messages.  They produce stylish, informative websites and mainstream commercials featuring Hollywood stars.  Like their predecessors of 150 years ago, modern abolitionists recognize that their strength lay in a savvy, technology-driven grassroots effort to reach as many hearts and minds as possible.