Reflecting on the Abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy

Mid 19th century memorial card for Reverend Elijah Parish Lovejoy with silhouette.

Nov 7, 2023 is the 186th anniversary of the murder of Elijah Lovejoy.  Most readers won’t recognize the name.  There is no monument to him anywhere that I am aware of.

Elijah P. Lovejoy, in full Elijah Parish Lovejoy, (born November 9, 1802, Albion, Maine, U.S.—died November 7, 1837, Alton, Illinois), American newspaper editor and martyred abolitionist who died in defense of his right to print antislavery material in the period leading up to the American Civil War(1861–65).  (From

I know about him because I am the unusual white person who pays a lot of attention to the evolution of white supremacy.  I marvel at Lovejoy, the Grimke sisters, William Lloyd Garrison and other white Abolitionists who contributed so much to the anti-slavery movement.

Whites have also been martyred in recent times.  Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi in 1964; Viola Liuzzo in 1965 in Alabama and Heather Heyer killed by a white supremacist in 2017 in Charlotteville are among the most prominent.

Since the Abolitionists, however, there has never been a serious antiracist movement among whites.  Individuals have aligned themselves with the struggles of Black, Indigenous, or other people of color.  There are and have been a few predominately white organizations devoted to antiracist work.  Many organizations have supported antilynching laws, fair housing or other reforms.  None, however, have contributed to anything close to the level of influence of the Abolitionists.  Not yet anyway.

Activist white abolitionists were themselves a tiny minority of the pre-Civil War U.S. population.  But they were the right people in the right place at the right time.  In conjunction with the more significant Black resistance, they made an enormous impact.

Being anti-slavery did not mean being antiracist or free of white supremacy. Not at all.  Abolitionists were on a spectrum of white supremacy.  As is true for white people now.  Today most U.S. white people fervently yet erroneously consider themselves unracist.  Some fervently yet erroneously even consider themselves antiracist.

Being perceived as unracist by oneself and others is very important to almost all whites.  “I don’t see color; he/she doesn’t have a racist bone in their body”—there are unlimited vocabularies of personal racial innocence.  The intensity with which even a scintilla of alleged white supremacy is denied is itself a function of, well, racism.  And when white people do reluctantly concede that some racism might exist, it is almost always attributed to another time, or place, or person.

Denial and delusion aside, some whites are trying to become genuinely antiracist to the extent possible.  I consider myself one of them.  Our cohort is aware that the alleged superiority of white civilization is deeply embedded into the identity of whiteness.   Therefore, we don’t claim to be either unracist or antiracist. Only to be working on it.  To paraphrase Professor Ibram X. Kendi, a white person can do an antiracist thing in the morning and three racist things in the afternoon of the very same day.  I mean if you pay any taxes at all, that alone is sufficient to make you complicit.

The commonality of claiming unracism also betrays a failure to understand the power of the forces that enforce white loyalty to the existing racial hierarchy.  It’s the result of what I call the white way of thinking.

racialized culture/economics/politics/emotion/violence

x 500 years


the white way of thinking 2023

Just as whites learn language, how to drive a car, or take communion in church, we learn the ways of white supremacy.  It pervades every crevice of our culture. So much so that it extends even to white people who identify as social justice activists. Most do not prioritize racial justice.  Instead, they focus on the environment, gender, labor rights, electoral politics or issues other than antiracism.

Why? The short answer is that even activist whites don’t usually consider racism to be a problem for them.  While not necessarily hostile to gains made by people of color, they are essentially comfortable with the racial hierarchy status quo.  The majority also share an analysis, or ideology if you prefer, that relegates the importance of racism, patriarchy and violence to the status of an ancillary problem.

The revelatory work of the late philosopher Charles Mills takes a different approach.  His short book The Racial Contract, makes the convincing case that contrary to conventional thinking, the socialcontract is actually subordinate to the racial contract.  That’s the true legacy of colonialism, settler colonialism and racialized capitalist slavery.  (Many resources for understanding the influence of ongoing colonialism are available at

“If you don’t understand white supremacy, everything that you think you do understand will only confuse you.”

– Neely Fuller


“The fact is that whiteness…is an identity created explicitly for power. Whiteness is white supremacy; it has no other real content…

– Indi Samarajiva


 “Us white folks were taught to think of racism as something you sign up for, instead of something you learn to do without even thinking about it.  So, we think not wanting to be racist is the same thing as not being racist.”

– Brian Edwards Tiekert

One of the arguments against the anti-slavery movement was that slavery would just wither away.  So it is today with colonialism and white supremacy.  Which are NOT. GOING. TO. DISSAPPEAR. OF. THEIR. OWN. ACCORD.  Neither will they dissipate as the trickle-down byproduct of some other movement.

Many social justice activists think that whatever is their “justice” priority, any gains made will automatically translate to benefits for people of color.  I’m not much of a fan of Robin D’Angelo’s book White Fragility.  (Starting with the title.  That’s a conversation for another time.) But I do appreciate the point she makes to the effect of, what do you mean I’m a racist? That can’t possibly be true. I’m a vegetarian.

Unfortunately, activists working to advance their chosen cause be it women’s rights, reduced pollution of air or water, more power for organized labor or something else can quite easily make things worse for people of color.  This may occur accidently, on purpose or in combination.

As a historical example, white suffragettes won the right to vote in part by persuading white men that their votes would offset those of Black voters.  A successful campaign to prevent toxic waste in one place may intensify pressure to move it to an Indigenous area instead.

Beyond that, systemic white supremacy impedes all progress. The racially driven change-blocking role of the U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court and the electoral college are conspicuous examples.  So is the tenacity of voter suppression, especially of Black voters.  Racist-driven resistance to healthcare-for-all or improved public transportation are other illustrations.  This is why any social justice gain is so extremely difficult to achieve and then to defend from the backlash that inevitably follows.

Unlearning white supremacy is not easy.  Neither is mitigating its structural power. It takes study, stamina, perseverance and courage.  AND ORGANIZING.  It’s worth it though, both for itself and because when racial justice improves, the path to all social transformation becomes easier.

A version of this article appeared in the Fall 2023 edition of Suburban Connections, a Detroit area antiracist newsletter.  

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement.