A lesson in ethics, slavery, & resistance

Several years ago, I designed a lesson as part of a faculty ethics workshop at Marymount University that has now become one of my favorite discussions of the semester in my early U.S. survey course. Whether you want to introduce some formal ethics language or not (and this lesson really just has a small amount), this activity is a great way to get students to connect past and present, think critically about the media, and reflect on the choices make people make in response to oppression.

Students learn about the northern personal liberty laws and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 as a precursor to the activity. Then I share the story of Shadrach Minkins, an enslaved man from Norfolk who self-emancipated and made his way to Boston. I take the story up to the point where a professional slave hunter has gotten a warrant and Minkins has been taken to the local courthouse.

Then I split the class into two groups, each of which gets a different newspaper account of what happened next. One story, appearing in the Boston Daily Times and Bay State Democrat, recounts that a violent mob broke the law to free Minkins. Another story, from The Liberator, says a peaceful group resisted an unjust law and got Minkins to safety (both stories are posted here, with extensive discussion questions). I ask the groups to discuss the following questions and share their responses with the group:

-What is the perspective of the writer on what happened to Minkins? Do you agree or disagree with the writer?

-How does the writer justify his or her perspective?

The groups reconvene and share what each story said. It becomes clear that one story is privileging the law, while another is privileging morality and faith. I explain two possible ethical systems to look to when deciding whether it was right to help Minkins escape: virtue ethics (“act as a good person would act”) and deontology (act based on universal rules of right and wrong). These are clearly oversimplifications, but the main point is to get students to consider how to weigh difficult ethical choices. Students then get back in their groups to discuss the following:

•What would you do?

•Under what circumstances should individual moral judgment outweigh the law? Is it ever ok to break the law?

•Would you risk imprisonment to resist oppression of yourself or others?

•Is there a risk to not standing up to oppression?

I’ve found that I need to preface this with a reminder that if they get arrested, it could hurt their families, especially if they are providers for their parents, siblings, or children. Without this preface, students almost universally say they would act. With it, many say they would not.

We reconvene as a class and discuss these questions. Some students point out that their own race, class, or gender influences whether or not they would act. Others are interested in how to set an example of resisting oppression to their children without putting their family’s well-being at risk.

I then finish the story for them–a number of those who helped Minkins escape the courthouse were arrested and nine people were indicted, although all were eventually acquitted. I remind them that the vast majority of Americans were not abolitionists. I leave them with a question: what ethical calculations today go into their decisions about when to resist oppression?

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