After Lincoln’s death, Garrison decided to retire. Slavery was over, he thought, so his job was done. But actually, President Andrew Johnson was busy stopping Lincoln’s plans, helping the South pass racist Jim Crow (racial segregation) laws, and supporting the Ku Klux Klan. Garrison, who was old and sick, decided to stay out of politics and watch from the sidelines. Even though this was a mistake, he was still a great antiracist, because he showed people that slavery was a moral question, not a political one.
Many students learn—or assume—that the government has consistently supported Black civil rights and equality since the end of the Civil War. But the rest of Stamped will prove this wrong, starting with President Johnson’s racist backlash to the great antiracist achievement of emancipation. Garrison’s legacy is based on his unparalleled talent for challenging racist ideas and spreading antiracist ideas. While such action isn’t enough to change policy on its own, it’s an important prerequisite to changing policy. Racist ideas are like the shields that protect white people from seeing racism, so tearing them down can get white people to join the fight for equality. And antiracist ideas are always based on the moral imperative to fight that fight.
Meanwhile, Black people were founding colleges and political organizations to fight President Andrew Johnson’s policies. And in 1870, with the Fifteenth Amendment, they won the right to vote. Black people celebrated all across the U.S., and many of them asked Garrison to give a victory speech. He dedicated his final years to helping Black people escape white terrorists in the South and move to safer places, like Kansas. By the end of his life, he finally came around to demanding immediate racial equality.
Just like John Cotton and Richard Mather enshrined racist ideas in the earliest American institutions, which then perpetuated them, the Black community founded antiracist institutions in order to organize their fight for civil rights. They viewed Garrison as an important activist forefather becuase of his publishing work. While neither his beliefs nor his actions were fully antiracist, he made a huge contribution to the movement for equality, and this was far more important. Reynolds and Kendi arrive at another important lesson: it’s better to work hard for progress, but make some mistakes, than failing to act because of perfectionism or a concern with moral purity.