Ohlone Monitor

America’s First Civil Rights Activist

Vicente Vera, Opinions Editor

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In a time before the voices of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas rang loud and clear, the abolishment of slavery was a concern that flew past the ears of many Americans. Slavery was perceived by most politicians to be a necessity in regards to maintaining a flourishing economy and a stable union. It was a boat not to be rocked as to keep tensions between the North and South stable.

When bondage ceases to negatively affect any person within your family, it can be rather effortless to push the notion of abolishment to the back burner. Setting aside the Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, signed by Benjamin Franklin in 1790, the issue of slavery was largely ignored throughout the birth of this nation.

However, there was one brave soul that kept the issue of enslavement alive and beating all through the Revolutionary War. In light of black history month, we thank the African Americans who stood up for liberty – we also remember the men and women from different ethnic backgrounds that stood with them as they fought for freedom. Lieutenant Colonel of the Continental Army, John Lauren's, was essential in sparking the conversation of the abolition of slavery in America.

John Laurens was born on October 28 1754 to a plantation owner father, Henry Laurens. According to his biography, John Laurens and the American Revolution by Gregory D. Massey, John grew up with a keenness for drawing and medicine.

While growing up, Laurens began to take notice of the situations his father's slaves had been forced to deal with. According to his father, slaves served as a constant reminder to whites of the consequences from losing one's freedom. Fortunately, John took disagreed. He described his father’s character as “absolutely above every occupation but eating, drinking, lolling, smoking and sleeping, which constitutes their life and existence.” John’s liberal attributes only continued to blossom as he embarked on his father's wishes to study law in England.

As Henry Laurens began serving in the Continental Congress, John returned from England in 1777 to aid General George Washington. This is where Laurens acquainted himself with French General Marquis de Lafayette and future Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, both of whom shared his beliefs when it came to slavery.

Laurens was commended by both his peers and soldiers for the outstanding courage he practiced in the course of combat. He gained respect as quickly as he furthered his military career. As he climbed up the ladder, John carried with him the message of abolishment and civil rights for all humans.

“We have sunk the Africans and their descendants below the Standard of Humanity, and almost rendered them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestowed upon us all.” said Laurens regarding slavery.

Throughout the war, Laurens routinely inquired congress to grant him a regiment consisting of enslaved black soldiers. The plan – according to Lauren's – was to arm black soldiers and in return for their contribution to the war effort, the congress would grant them their freedom. Alas, this idea was appealing only to Laurens as congress continuously rejected his proposal, though this did not end his pursuit in seeking justice for the enslaved.

Unfortunately, the life of Laurens was cut tragically short. He was killed in battle on August 27, 1782, at the young age of 27, only a few weeks before the British finally withdrew from the battlefield.

So compassionate in not only his beliefs, but in his actions as well. The empathy he displayed towards those too oppressed to speak up, and his efforts to bring them out of the shadows of bondage, cemented the legacy of Laurens as one of America’s first civil rights activist. To be grouped in with the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it is no wonder many overlook the unsung heroes that helped instil the equal liberty that would be later implemented.

To this day, the concepts that Laurens merely dreamt of, have well exceeded the expectations that he had asked of congress. If Laurens were living today, the overcoming joy he is bound to exhibit would be enough to strike fear into any person who still holds the outdated concept of hate dear to their heart.

During the month of February, we celebrate the brave men and women who spoke up against discrimination. After reading the story of John Laurens, he will be added to my list of heroes who helped establish progressive equality in America.


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America’s First Civil Rights Activist