Celebrating Rev. Henry Highland Garnet
By Edward A. Hailes, Jr. | Managing Director and General Counsel
Rev. Henry Highland Garnet was a 19th Century abolitionist, educator, theologian, and Pan-Africanist, who preached a radical theology of liberation and resistance. He delivered a sermon to Congress on Sunday, February 12, 1865, only days after the House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery nationwide except as a punishment for crime ... Rev. Garnet was the first African American to lift his voice in the U.S. Capitol - a building built by enslaved people and crowned with a statue named “Freedom.” The Members of the House of Representatives looked for a light to guide the nation out of its dark contradiction of proclaiming freedom and justice for all while sanctioning the cruel captivity of enslaved Africans. Rev. Garnet brought light and fire!
His sermon entitled, “Let The Monster Perish,” painted a piercing, painful picture of the wickedness of slavery. He escaped enslavement in Maryland and was educated in the North. He was radically opposed to enslavement and racial oppression. He served as the pastor of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church at the time he delivered this sermon.
As an impacted person, who suffered under the crushing inhumanity of race-based bondage and oppression, he did not hold back his bold demand for action over words. He pointed to Biblical passages that described the calculated, immoral hypocrisy of leaders who enacted rules and laws that put burdens on the people and then failed to lift a single finger to remove those burdens. He preached:
"Let slavery die. It has had a long and fair trial. God himself has pleaded against it. The enlightened nations of the earth have condemned it. Its death warrant is signed by God and man. Do not commute its sentence. Give it no respite, but let it be ignominiously executed."
Despite the House’s adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Rev. Garnet knew the nation had to enforce the law and rip out the lingering effects of slavery in order to make Africans in America whole. There was a great debt to be paid. In his words,
"Great sacrifices have been made by the people; yet, greater still are demanded ere atonement can be made for our national sins. Eternal justice holds heavy mortgages against us and will require the payment of the last farthing. We have involved ourselves in the sin of unrighteous gain, stimulated by luxury and pride and the love of power and oppression; and prosperity and peace can be purchased only by blood and with tears of repentance. We have paid some of the fearful installments, but there are other heavy obligations to be met."
Today, there remain debts to pay for the lingering effects of slavery, black codes, Jim Crow laws, de jure and de facto segregation, racial discrimination, exclusion, and oppression. Today, we see anachronistic burdens placed on the voting rights of citizens with past felony convictions. These burdens were planted in the schemes, policies, and practices before the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution and still bear fruit. Then and now, these burdens have the intention and impact of making it harder for free, Black people to vote. Impacted people led the way in Florida to eliminate unfair, unjust laws that take away voting rights for people with past felony convictions. Yet, elected leaders continue to place burdens on these would-be voters and refuse to move a single finger to remove them.
On February 12, 2018, Rev. Garnet said:
"It is often asked when and where will the demands of the reformers of this and coming ages end? It is a fair question, and I will answer.
When all unjust and heavy burdens shall be removed from every man in the land. When all invidious and proscriptive distinctions shall be blotted out from our laws, whether they be constitutional, statute or municipal laws. When emancipation shall be followed by enfranchisement, and all men holding allegiance to the government shall enjoy every right of American citizenship."
On February 12, 2020, let the nation say, Amen.
Edward A Hailes Jr, a civil rights attorney and ordained Baptist minister, serves as Managing Director and General Counsel for Advancement Project National Office.