In 1810, Cassius Marcellus Clay was born into one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in Kentucky. However, while studying at Yale, he heard the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak. It was a powerful experience that seriously challenged the beliefs Cassius was raised with, and set him on the path to embracing abolition.
This prominent son of wealthy slave owners later served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, where his anti-slavery views led to attacks and assassination attempts. The stories of Cassius Clay fighting off assailants sound like the stuff of legend. During a heated public debate, for example, a hired killer fired a bullet right at Cassius’ chest… just as Cassius was unsheathing his bowie knife, which took the hit and saved his life. Despite having just taken the impact of a bullet, Cassius tossed the would-be assassin over an embankment… after slicing off his nose and one of his ears. When six men wielding knives and clubs attacked Cassius at a public meeting, he ended the fight by gutting one of them and causing the rest to flee.
In 1845, Cassius Clay began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper called True American. He installed armored doors at the printing press, as well as two cannons. It didn’t stop a mob of 60 men from storming the press, and forcing the publication to relocate to a free state even as Cassius himself remained in Kentucky. A decade and a half later, Cassius Clay would organize the defense unit that protected the White House when the Civil War erupted. He served as minister to Russia during the war, where he helped to secure Russia’s support for the Union. When President Lincoln recalled him from Russia in 1862 to serve as a general in the Union Army, Cassius publicly refused the position unless the President issued a proclamation freeing all slaves under Confederate control… which Lincoln did later that same year.
Nine years after Cassius Clay’s death in 1903, a man named Herman Heaton Clay – whose ancestors had been enslaved by the Clay family – named his son after the famous knife-wielding abolitionist. The Cassius Clay born in 1912 would later name HIS son Cassius Clay, Jr. – better known to the world as Muhammad Ali. —Examples of White Antiracisim in US History
What a story!
Sharing stories like this (that is, white abolitionists who stood up against whites deeply invested in the racist status quo), is probably something that makes racists annoyed.
Like the various assassination attempts Cassius Marcellus Clay survived, or the time a tour group of 60 proud supporters of the status quo casually toured themselves through the barricaded, armored doors of his abolitionist newspaper and percussively redecorated the interior (and in the process reconfiguring his printing press into a special, non-functioning mode).
The stories of white abolitionists are of course only one part of history; but it’s these stories — centering on how often it is that angry white people resort to hostility and violence against other whites who acknowledge the essential human value of Black lives — these are the stories that tend to annoy racist whites who think it’s “divisive” to teach facts about our nation’s racist history.
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