Monday, March 15, 2021
1837: The Murder of Elijah Lovejoy
His killing by racists shocked the conscience of America – and led to a nationwide outpouring of indignation, just as the murder of George Floyd did many years later. His murder constituted a brutal attack on freedom of the press – long before a president denounced “fake news” and cheered on physical assaults against journalists. This year, as the United States grapples with its long history of racial oppression and the ongoing efforts to muzzle the media, it’s important to honour the memory of 19th century anti-slavery journalist Elijah Lovejoy, killed 183 years ago.
At about three o’clock in the morning on November 7th 1837, the steamboat Missouri Fulton unloaded a printing press it was delivering to the Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois. The printing press was brought into a warehouse owned by a businessman sympathetic to the fight against slavery. That printing press was supposed to produce the Alton Observer, an anti-slavery newspaper edited by Elijah Lovejoy, a 34-year-old Presbyterian minister. Soon, a drunken mob of 200 people began throwing stones. When attempts were made to set the warehouse’s roof on fire, Lovejoy emerged from inside the building in an effort to stop the burning. Five shots rang out, killing him.
The mob broke apart the printing press and threw the pieces into the Mississippi river. It was not the first time that one of Lovejoy’s presses had been destroyed. Lovejoy began his journalistic career in St Louis in the mid-1830s. There, his printing press had been demolished and his home burglarised because of his anti-slavery editorials. In May 1836, Lovejoy was forced to flee St Louis. He moved his family across the Mississippi river to the town of Alton in the free state of Illinois. There, he continued to editorialise against slavery. Pro-slavery mobs in Alton destroyed his presses several times. Each time, Lovejoy obtained a new printing press and continued to speak out against slavery.
The death of Lovejoy set off a chain of events which transformed America. Public meetings of protest were held throughout the North and Midwest. Former President John Quincy Adams described Lovejoy as America’s first martyr to freedom of the press and the freedom of the slave. Abraham Lincoln denounced the killing. The great orator Wendell Phillips launched his life-long campaign against slavery and injustice with a heartfelt speech in Boston’s Faneuil Hall condemning Lovejoy’s murder. At a meeting in Ohio, John Brown stood up, raised his hand – as if swearing an oath – and pledged to dedicate the rest of his life to the fight against slavery.
The horrific murder of Lovejoy helped people understand that slavery was wrong and that it not only destroyed the freedom of the enslaved, but also endangered the freedom of the people of the North and West as well.
Like the young activists protesting in the streets today, the abolitionists of the 19th century felt an obligation to speak out against the most horrific wrongs of their generation. In Lovejoy’s time, the 10,000 families that controlled the largest Southern plantations (and owned most of the slaves in the United States) completely dominated the political life of the country. That handful of people, a tiny percentage of the 30 million human beings then residing in the United States, were prepared to do anything necessary to maintain their political control. (They certainly showed that by killing Lovejoy.) Today, one per cent of the population of the United States controls the vast majority of the wealth and dominates the political life of the country.
Elijah Lovejoy was forced to flee the city of St Louis in May 1836. The Dred Scott case which ended with a vicious, racist US Supreme Court decision denying the humanity of African Americans was first filed in St Louis in April 1846. In November 2020, Cori Bush, an African American nurse active in the fight against police brutality, was elected to the US House of Representatives — representing St Louis. The spirit of Elijah Lovejoy and Dred Scott lives on in all those who continue the struggle for justice today and who persevere in the fight to end the domination of this country by the wealthy one per cent.