Lessons from the past offer a road map to abolitionist success
History holds a treasure trove of resources for vegan, abolitionist, animal rights activists, but many of these resources remain untapped by the movement. This omission can, one hopes, be partly remedied through articles and film dramatizations pointing to information about the underground railroad, the women’s suffrage movement, and other moments in history from which readers and viewers can extract valuable lessons, glean techniques, and draw moral support.
Any current activist seeking to free the animals—to end slavery, in all its forms—should learn the history of proto-abolition, i.e., the ending of human slavery: the proto-abolitionists whose labor brought an end to the legal institution of human slavery encountered many, if not most, of the same obstacles that abolitionists face today, and the methods used by proto-abolitionists in reaching their goal afford a veritable road map or “playbook” for success.
Particularly when dealing with events that occurred before the invention of film, a dramatic reenactment of a pivotal moment in history can be informative in a manner that is unavailable otherwise. Dramatization goes beyond mere recitation of facts to attach a name and a face—even if those of an actor—to a historical character, thereby offering a sort of avatar through whom the viewer can gain vicarious experience of and exposure to the difficulties prior activists faced. Through such film, television, or stage productions, we can “witness” ourselves, at least to a degree, the acts of intimidation and brutality to which previous activists were subjected, as well as some of their moments of deep-seated self-doubt and transcendent courage.
Below are three works of film that feature dramatizations and reenactments through which modern activists can gain some such experience. Two of these pieces deal with proto-abolition itself. The third, in contrast, exemplifies an approach that saved lives even while the broader jurisdiction’s system of slavery remained intact.
The Abolitionists (2013)
Featuring interviews of modern historians as well as dramatizations, The Abolitionists (a mini-series with a total running time of approximately 180 minutes), published by PBS, introduces viewers to some of the leading figures of the U.S. proto-abolitionist movement of the 1800s, such as Angelina Grimké, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown. As with the other films in this list, these proto-abolitionists are portrayed by actors. But, since we do not have actual film footage of these activists themselves, getting to see such figures “in person” can be an empowering, encouraging, and enlightening experience.
Supplementary reading: Many issues of William Lloyd Garrison’s proto-abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and that of Frederick Douglass, The North Star, are available online. Both of these publications are expressly recognized in the Humane Party platform as political ancestors of The Humane Herald.
Amazing Grace (2006)
Amazing Grace depicts an important portion of the story of William Wilberforce and other leaders of the proto-abolitionist movement in the British Empire, including Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, and John Newton, a former slave trader who penned the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Wilberforce is doubly relevant to modern activists, being not only a successful proto-abolitionist but also the founder of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an organization which can be viewed as the prototype for the thousands of humane societies and animal-protection organizations that can now be found around the world.
Supplementary reading: Equiano’s 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, is available online or in print through your local library.
Schindler’s List (1993)
Schindler’s List depicts the actions of businessperson Oskar Schindler in response to the Holocaust. Unlike the proto-abolitionists featured in the above two films, Schindler is not overtly involved in trying to change the political-legal system itself. Instead, Schindler takes advantage of an opportunity uniquely available to him to create a sort of sanctuary or shelter. That approach is still in action today, being embodied in sanctuaries such as those operated by The Gentle Barn and Farm Sanctuary, and will remain important until the Abolition Amendment or analogous legislation has been enacted, thereby effectively transforming an entire jurisdiction into an animal sanctuary.
Supplementary listening: Not everyone is in a position like that of Schindler. Yet supremely courageous acts of individual resistance and self-sacrifice have arisen even among those without such means. Most of these acts have escaped the historical record; they will likely remain forever unknown. But some accounts are available to help us get a sense of such acts. Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France, by Agnès Humbert, a first-person account by a member of the French resistance in WWII, is available in an excellent audio book, read by Joyce Bean.