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The First Civil Rights Movement Began -- in a Bookstore

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2013 marks a pair of Civil Rights milestones. We celebrated both the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Reverend Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. So this might also be a good time to give a thought to the very first civil rights movement. That's one with a special meaning for those of us in the book business. The earliest anti-slavery movement began in London 226 years ago in a bookshop.

The long road to freedom for the slaves in America and elsewhere would have been much more difficult were it not for the work of that first group. Their story is brilliantly told in Adam Hochschild's 2005 book Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.

Hochschild marks the date and place where that first civil rights movement began.

"it [was] the late afternoon of May 22, 1787, when twelve determined men sat down in the printing shop at 2 George Yard, amid flatbed presses, wooden trays of type, and large sheets of freshly printed book pages, to begin one of the most ambitious and brilliantly organized citizens' action movements of all time."

These early organizers confronted a daunting problem. Nearly three-quarters of all the people in the world at that time were in some form of bondage or serfdom. Each year about 80,000 people were bound in shackles and transported across the Atlantic under unimaginable conditions. The number of Africans shipped into slavery was nearly three times the number of white immigrants to the New World.

This was a crucial moment for the abolition of the slave trade, but the historical significance of the meeting in that bookshop may be even greater than that. To put it in its simplest terms, this was the first time a group had ever been formed to protect -- not the rights of its members -- but the rights of others.

Hochschild puts it this way:

Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights. And most startling of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent.

It's worth pausing for a minute to think about that. There are few times in history when you can point to something and say that it was a clear, unambiguous moral advancement. But this was one of those moments. The actions of the anti-slavery committee in England set the tone for thousands of civil rights and social movements over the next couple of hundred years.

That first anti-slavery group had to invent everything -- not just its own organization, but all of the tactics that we now take for granted with modern social justice movements. As Hochschild puts it:

Each of these tools, from the poster to the political book tour, from the consumer boycott to investigative reporting designed to stir people to action, is part of what we take for granted in a democracy. Two and a half centuries ago, few people assumed this. When we wield any of these tools today, we are using techniques devised or perfected by the campaign that held its first meeting at 2 George Yard in 1787.

Our hats are off to the people gathered around those piles of books so many years ago!

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Bill Petrocelli's newly released novel is The Circle of Thirteen.