I realize that this post is late, but I have been a bit behind on my blog due to starting a new semester of grad school. So with that in mind, I wanted to talk about the parallels between Martin Luther King, Jr. and a historical figure by the name of Abby Kelley. Kelley was a white 19th century abolitionist from Massachusetts who just so happened to have been born on January 15, the same day as King. Albeit one hundred eighteen years earlier. I have long considered Kelley to be a “spiritual grandmother” to King, so I thought that today would be a good day to look at some of the greatest parallels between these two individuals. Please understand that not every similarity should be taken as an unconditional endorsement of the views and/or actions described. For example, while I respect King’s and Kelley’s pacifism, I believe that war is sometimes necessary, particularly to abolish slavery.
- Both Championed Equality and Integration For African Americans: Pretty much everybody in the United States knows this about King, so I will focus mainly on Kelley here. As an abolitionist, Kelley called for immediate emancipation of all slaves in an era when such a position was quite unpopular even in the North. Her views on racism against black people were equally radical. She violated social norms by traveling on the lecture circuit with Frederick Douglass, supported efforts to legalize interracial marriage in Massachusetts, and clashed with certain abolitionists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, over whether or not to support the Fifteenth Amendment if it enfranchised black men but not women of all races. Kelley’s position was that black male suffrage should take priority over women’s suffrage for the time being. When the American Anti-Slavery Society was dissolved in 1870, with the rationale being that the time had come for abolitionists to work for racial justice as individuals rather than as members of an organization, Kelley opposed this decision. She also opposed the decision to withdraw federal troops from the South in 1877, correctly predicting that it would lead to greater persecution of African Americans.
- Both Promoted Non-Violence: As his career went on, King became more and more committed to non-violence, eventually refusing to own guns or allow his bodyguards to have them. And of course, his political alliance with Lyndon Johnson was greatly strained by his decision to oppose the Vietnam War. He also condemned the military draft and encouraged ministers to give up their deferments in order to be active draft resisters. Kelley similarly believed in resisting slavery through non-violence or, as it was called at the time “nonresistance.” In this sense, she was a disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, but her views proved more absolutist than his. When Garrison was forced to reconcile his hatreds of slavery and war with the issue of a war that could end slavery, he chose (correctly, in my view) to support the war. Kelley, despite her abolitionism being as strong as ever, refused to support the Civil War. She represented one of the few Northerners to oppose the Civil War based on pacifism rather than racism.
- Both Practiced Civil Disobedience: King is probably the most respected American in the 20th century to use nonviolent civil disobedience in order to protest unjust laws. Kelley employed similar tactics. A key site of her civil disobedience was the farm in Worcester, Massachusetts, called Liberty Farm, which she and her husband, Stephen Symonds Foster, owned. In the antebellum era, the farm functioned as a refuge for fugitive slaves. In the 1870s, Kelley applied the principle of “no taxation without representation” to women’s rights by refusing to pay taxes on the farm until women were granted suffrage.
- Both Supported Separation of Church and State: This one may surprise a lot of people. In response to the Supreme Court declaring that teacher-led prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, King stated, ““I endorse it. I think it was correct.” He elaborated that, “Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother [Alabama Governor] Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.” Kelley, for her part, joined many of her fellow abolitionists in opposing “Sabbatarian” laws. These laws forbade businesses from operating on Sundays based on a religious rationale. It was not that King and Kelley were anti-religion. While neither of them embraced mainstream evangelical Christianity, both were deeply influenced by their religious upbringing, Baptist in the case of King, Quaker in the case of Kelley. But both of them believed that government could not be an arm of any church.
- Both Had Amazing Spouses: King’s wife, Coretta, spent nearly forty years after his death championing civil and human rights causes from anti-Apartheid to gay rights. Kelley’s husband, the aforementioned Stephen Symonds Foster, was also a staunch abolitionist, racial egalitarian, and women’s suffragist who disrupted meetings of churches that refused to support emancipation, penned a book about proslavery churches called Brotherhood of Thieves, shared a room with Frederick Douglass on the lecture circuit, and criticized fellow women’s suffragists when they made racially offensive remarks. And just as Coretta was the primary caregiver of her and Martin’s four children during Martin’s years as an activist, Stephen defied the gender conventions of the era by staying home and taking care of his and Abby’s daughter for an extended period of time while Abby traveled promoting abolitionism. As Arkansas considers dropping the rather incongruous MLK/Robert E. Lee holiday, a King/Kelley holiday could be an excellent replacement.