Stephen B. Oates
Reflections on the Man and his Freedom Quartet
Given the realities of the America into which we were born and came of age, a land torn and divided by racist rage, it is highly unlikely that Steve and I would have ever met as equal human beings, let alone become dear friends. Yet despite the divisions of race, rigorously enforced by law and social etiquette in the regions of the country where we grew up and were socialized – he in the small of Pampa Texas, me in the tiny picturesque old Spanish settlement of Saint Augustine Florida – we had some things in common. We were both failed trumpeters; We wore mustaches, we were both veterans of the Civil Rights Movement – he an acolyte of Dr. King, me a passionate partisan of Malcolm X – we both had a visceral antipathy for injustice; and we believed the accurate writing and teaching of history could play a vital role in solving the nation’s racial crisis. A crisis which, at the time we met over half a century ago, threatened to tear the nation asunder. Indeed, the question posed by Abraham Lincoln in 1858 seemed just as relevant a century later in 1969: Can a house divided against itself continue to stand? It is a question whose relevance no sane and sober observer viewing America objectively in 2022 can deny.
One wonders what Steve would have made of our present mess. With the untutored MAGA mob hurling incendiary lies about Democrats that eerily echo the hysterical baseless slanders pro-slavery southern Democrats heaped upon Northern Republicans in the 1850’s; incited to armed insurrection by a deranged former President who refuses to concede he lost the election two years after the fact, a verbal arsonist who recently exhorted a howling white mob “to die in the streets” to prevent Critical Race Theory from being taught in their public schools. Since there is no chance that this sophisticated legal theory will ever be taught to public school children, the growing hysteria around the issue is but a thinly veiled attempt to arrest the development of a pedagogy that seeks to tell the unvarnished truth about race relations in American Civilization. They prefer their children be lied to just as they were, passing the protracted racial conflict on to future generations.
Indeed, Devious Donald Dimwit, whose incoherent rantings are a burlesque on serious argument, wants our schools to teach something called “Patriotic History,” which bears a disturbing resemblance to Hitler’s “Race History,” whose objective was the indoctrination of German youths with Nazi master race theories – much of which was lifted from the 1917 racist tome “The Passing of the Great Race,” celebrating the superiority of blond haired blue eyed Teutons, penned by the Columbia University graduate and leader in the American Eugenics Movement, Madison Grant. We know this because Hitler says so in a letter archived in Grant’s papers. Just Google “Madison Grant and Adolph Hitler.” Ironically, the new state laws being hastily passed prescribing guidelines for the teaching of patriotic American history, may yet result in Professor Oates’s books being banned in his native Texas!
As was the case in the turbulent 1850’s, the two major political parties get their view of events from a divided media with diametrically opposed visions of reality. And as I write The Economist, has released a poll showing that a majority of Americans believe the country will be in another Civil war within the next decade. In a nation with 200 million guns in the hands of civilians, 20 million of which are military assault rifles, this is no picayune matter. Especially when many of these people fervently believe the Second Amendment was created to arm the citizenry against a tyrannical federal government. Despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Never has historical perspective been more critical to understanding the dangerous complexities of current events. That’s why President Biden has summoned historians to the white House twice in the past few months, and they say the issues that concern him most, are the rise of Fascism in Weimar Germany and the American Civil War. We can deduce what he learned from his prime-time speech in front of Constitution Hall in Philadelphia, where the President sounded the alarm warning that our democracy cannot endure when one party decides that there are only two possible outcomes of an election: Either we win or the election was stolen.
` I suspect even a casual perusal of his oeuvre would provide a pretty good idea where Professor Oates would stand on the major issues at hand. Especially the four works that I call the Freedom Quartet, the magisterial biographies: To Purge This Land with Blood; The Fires of Jubilee; With Malice Toward None; Let the Trumpet Sound. I think of them as the academic equivalent of a Quartet in four movements, composed with the lyrical elegance, emotional gravitas, and dazzling erudition of a Mozart masterwork. The four men who are the subjects of these biographies come from radically different backgrounds but are bound together in their fight against the evils wrought by the system of white supremacy in America. A persistent theme in our history that continues to linger on like the melody of a bad song.
In discussing his works Professor Oates often employs the term “leitmotif,” which can be defined as “a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.” Hence if we think of the four books in the Freedom Quartet as movements in a single composition, the leitmotif that gives them continuity is the contradiction between the professed ideals of American civilization – all men are created equal and endowed by God with the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and the persistent practice of white supremacy. A practice which resulted in policies of dispossession and genocide among the indigenes, whom the enlightened Canadians call “The First Nations” of the Americas, and the enslavement of kidnapped Africans, whose status in law for most of the history of the English settler colonialists that built the United States of America was equivalent to that of livestock. Chattel, with no more rights than the beast of the fields. And the august Supreme Court proclaimed it in the 1857 Dread Scott Decision, when they ruled 7-2 that ”Black men have no rights white men are bound to respect!” A ruling that applied to all African Americans Slave or Free. It is a sentiment some white Americans still hold dear, including armed policemen.
The second great theme that persists through the Freedom Quartet, is the story of heroic struggles waged by those who opposed the evils of white supremacy, slavery and segregation, which they regarded as a betrayal of the Universal Humanism proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and a blasphemous transgression against the commandments of the God they professed to serve, who bequeathed the rights to all men that are enumerated and celebrated in our foundational document . Since the books span a period from the founding of our federal republic in the late 18th century, to the last third of the 20th century, we are provided a view of how the issue of race has been a central factor in the growth and character of the United States. Despite all the hysterical denials that racism and racial oppression is fundamental to the American experience, the voices in Professor Oates’ Freedom Quartet boldly proclaim this truth. And their voices are unimpeachable.
It is readily apparent to the careful observer that these biographies are not the product of academic busywork coerced by the imperative to publish or perish. Nor the seductions of the fame and fortune that accompanies authorial success. Their raison d’etre was inspired by a passion for justice and a deeply held belief that an accurate understanding of the nation’s history could assist in the building of a more just society, “the more perfect union” envisioned in the preamble to the Constitution. And insure the “domestic tranquility” it calls for.
Hence it was not by happenstance that Steve chose as the subjects of his Freedom Quartet two black Americans and two white Americans whose stories share a common theme: They all gave their lives in the struggle to make America a freer and more just society, to live up to the exalted ideals proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. In an essay in the anthology “Biography as High Adventure,” Steve defined his project as an effort to “ humanize the monstrous moral paradox of slavery and racial oppression in a land based on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.” And he felt the thread that held his subjects together is the fact that:
“All four were driven, visionary men, all were caught up in the issues of slavery and race, and all devised their own solutions to those inflammable problems. And all perished, too, in the conflicts and hostilities that surrounded the quest for equality in their country.”
Two were hung, and two were felled by assassin’s bullets.
There was something else of critical importance that held these men together: They all met the measure of the Prophet based upon the criteria set forth by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a distinguished theologian and world-renowned authority on the ancient Hebrew Prophets, who fled Nazi Germany and later became an activist in the US Civil Rights Movement. In declaring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Prophet, he said: “Moralist of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue. The Distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression,” and their willingness to die for this truth. Notwithstanding the value of his other works, which consists of 12 more volumes, for me his exquisitely composed Freedom Quartet shall remain Professor Oates’ magnum Opus.
Without diminishing their monumental importance one jot or tittle, I confess that I might be biased toward these works because Steve discussed three of them with me while he was writing them, from conception to completion, and thus I feel a special relationship to them. I still remember the look of excitement on his face when he was writing The Fires of Jubilee and visited me at my home in Harlem, after he had just retraced the footsteps that the brilliant mystic slave rebel Nat Turner took during his bloody rebellion in Southampton County Virginia in 1831. It was as if he had transported himself back to that time and place and witnessed the event. I was especially moved by his narration because Nat and I are kindred spirits.
I shared his wonder as he reveals how Abraham Lincoln metamorphosed from a cautious Free Soiler, perfectly willing to let the southerners keep their black bondsman if it would preserve the Union, ambivalent about the equality of black folk and whether they could function as free citizens in American society, with a railroad lawyers respect for the property rights of southern slaveholders, a concern he never really abandoned, to a committed abolitionist willing to wage the bloodiest most destructive war the world had yet seen and abolish slavery – despite military setbacks, the advice of some cabinet members, and widespread virulent opposition from racist white northerners – because he became convinced it was God’s punishment of America for the sin of slavery. And “the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” Lincoln proclaimed in his second Inaugural Address.
As Steve has pointed out repeatedly in response to those who dismiss John Brown – the subject of the first volume of his Freedom Quartet, “To Purge This Land With Blood” – as a crazed religious fanatic because he believed that God had chosen him for the mission of liberating the slaves and purge America of its evils with the blood of slaveholders: There was no difference in Brown’s religious passions and convictions and those of Abe Lincoln’s…or those of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They all fervently believed that an almighty God was orchestrating their fate. Yet nobody ever characterized Lincoln and Lee as “religious fanatics.”
I was fascinated by the way Steve reconstructed Martin Luther King’s dangerous Civil Rights campaign in St. Augustine Florida, not the least of which because of the things he revealed to me about my hometown. I left during the summer of 1960, just after the Black southern Student Sit-In Movement began, which I had participated in as a Freshman at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, but it had not yet reached St. Augustine, although those of us who had gone off to college had all been active in that nascent struggle, and my boyhood friend Hank Thomas would become an iconic figure in the southern struggle, when his image appeared on the front pages of Newspapers around the world walking out of a flaming bus into the crazed white mob that had firebombed the “Freedom Riders” in Anniston Alabama.
By the time Dr. King came to St. Augustine I had been gone for several years and a lot had changed. For one thing, race relations had become more violent. Hence when I read Steve’s meticulous reconstructions of the night marches down to the old slave market, led by Dr. King, rendered with a novelistic eye for detail, I sat breathlessly on the edge of my chair. I knew the route well, and there were abundant darkened nooks and crannies from which a crazed murder minded gunman from the racist Ancient City Gun Club might fire on the procession. I was astonished at the heroism of my neighbors, ordinary people doing extraordinary things in pursuit of their freedom. And Steve’s narrative captured the dramatic ambience of the moment so well, as they resolutely walked in the shadow of death, inspired by the soul stirring preachments of Dr. King, that when I meet them on trips to the Ancient City, America’s oldest, I feel like genuflecting before their feet.
Professor Stephen Oates sought to give voice to the grievances of the voiceless in American civilization, and he chose to achieve his objective by putting their most impassioned and able advocates on center stage and focusing the limelight on them. If, as the Bard of Avon declared: “All the world is a stage and we are but players upon it,” the dramatis personae in the epic tales Steve chose to tell were John Brown, Nat Turner, Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King. With the skill of a Saville Row tailor, he stitched together the various details of their lives, vices and virtues, yielded by his prodigious research, into a seamless narrative that allows us to see the world as they saw it in real time. And even feel what they felt.
The power of his narratives is such that, even one whose saved senior daughter has labeled an “unchurched heathen,” who has been an avowed atheist since I was 13, convinced by the racist caste system under which I grew up in Florida, that no just God could possibly be presiding over such an unjust world, can yet feel the fire in the spirit of their religious convictions. It is an Amazing Grace that makes my spirit dance! A feat that no dispassionate, value free, research technician could achieve. These moving texts are the conjurations of an emotionally engaged intellectual with a poet in his soul. Without lapsing into “special pleading” nor descending into propaganda, meticulously interrogating the voluminous records available to the professional historian, the Freedom Quartet transcends conventional scholarship and rises to the level of some rarified intellectual alchemy. They are a priceless benefaction to this nation. Let his trumpet sound loudly! For if widely enough heard, it might awaken the better angels of our nature that Abraham Lincoln believed could save the soul of our republic.
View Playthell Presenting the Tribute at U-Mass on Facebook
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York