The Influence of One Man to Transform an Empire

“A picture,” as they say,” is worth a thousand words.” That’s how I introduced a blog on November 19th.

A picture can raise public awareness of injustices. Pictures on the evening news or in Life Magazine of blacks marching across the bridge in Selma—being bloodied by police batons and dogs—raised awareness and fueled the struggle against segregation. Last year, the picture of a police officer’s knee pressing against a black man’s neck unleashed public anger. Unfortunately, it became an excuse for rioting and anarchy. The injustices have always been present, but one picture pushed the simmering anger to the boiling point. 

Such is the power of one picture. 

Today, here on Front Porch Swing, I want to consider what one man or one woman taking up the cause against an injustice can accomplish. That man, in this case, was William Wilberforce.

Wilberforce, a member of the British House of Commons, led the cause to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. He began the struggle in 1788, while gathering meticulous information about the brutal realities of slavery. He introduced bills that were defeated in the House of Commons in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804 and 1805. In spite of each rejection, Wilberforce continued his mission relentlessly. Finally, on Feb. 23, 1807, the House of Commons voted to abolish the slave trade by 283 to 16. His persistence paid off. Yes, others were also part of the cause, but it took one man in a strategic place, fully committed to the cause, to lead the charge. 

Wilberforce and other abolitionist turned the tide of public opinion by exposing slavery for what it really was. Pictures of field workers under the harsh whip of white plantation owners and living examples of emancipated slaves displaying the scars on their backs began to open eyes. Taking wealthy merchants, with wives in tow, to visit ships where up to 700 slaves were chained in tight quarters below deck in filthy conditions also had an influence. 

What they saw—and smelled—and experienced—they could never forget. 

They witnessed the iron shackles. They learned that half the slaves torn from their homes and villages in Africa would never survive the trans-Atlantic crossing, but would fall victim to disease, torture, and suicide. The stench in the slave quarters of the ship burned nasal passages, but began to open eyes and hearts and mouths to cry out against exporting human beings like cargo.

The actual institution of slavery, however, was not abolished in the British Empire until July 26, 1833. 

Why? Why 26 years? Why did it take so long to eradicate something so obviously evil? Simply speaking: money. There were fortunes to be made, and slave labor sustained the sugar and cotton industries. The British loved sugar in their tea. What’s more, slave trade generated tax revenue, and bankers, merchants and politicians benefited. Britain became wealthy through the trade of products produced on the backs of slaves. The injustices of slavery remained out of sight (by choice) since it was across the Atlantic in the Americas. Not in enlightened England.

The same motivations drove and sustained slavery in our Southern States. Huge plantations depended on cheap (free) labor in their tobacco and cotton fields. Sadly, money spoke louder than Scripture. In fact, Scripture was twisted to defend slavery in southern churches. In later years, it was also used to justify the evil of segregation and Jim Crow laws and the Klu Klux Klan. On a visit to a southern state in the heart of the cotton industry, I visited the Museum of Cotton. Watching videos about cotton production, I was somewhat stunned to hear the narrator suggesting that the poor blacks actually benefited and loved their gracious masters.

Thank God slavery and segregation is forbidden by law today. But just making something illegal doesn’t mean that it stops. Racial injustices continue. Humans are being sold and transported around the world and in America today. More often these days, they will be young girls or women sold into sexual slavery. Or they may be poor immigrants smuggled into the country and forced to labor in sweat shops where they will never escape poverty.

But today I want to revisit the issue of abortion. Perhaps one day, soon I hope, the generations that follow may look back at the present brutal and horrific practice of abortion on demand. They may write books about the cruel injustices heaped upon the unborn and defended by politicians and judges using the very amendment intended to eradicate slavery. Will those who follow us criticize preachers and professors of ethics who shamelessly defend abortion on the basis of a woman’s “right to privacy”? Will they be shocked to discover that abortion became a profitable industry (I cringe to even us the word), and that tax money supported an institution responsible for millions of abortions?

How can this be in our “enlightened” 21st century?

Maybe we aren’t as enlightened—or “woke”—as we imagine ourselves. Are we as blind, by choice, as those British bankers and businessmen and housewives dumping sugar in their tea, while human beings were bought and sold and abused like livestock? Surely not! Of course, we are more cognizant of injustices around the world. Aren’t we? People living in the 2020s are more empathetic and compassionate than those 17th century aristocrats. Aren’t we? We would never value sugar more than another human being.

I wonder. I wonder if we have simply chosen to look the other way. 

Will it take a picture, like that of the cop’s knee on the neck of a black man? Will it take one or two or more citizens dedicated to becoming a voice defending those without a voice? Each of these little ones has a brain, a heart, lungs and stomach, and can feel pain. But in the womb—no voice. No legal protection.

Let me illustrate. Perhaps you’ve seen something on the Internet about the penalty for killing an eagle or destroying a marine turtle’s nest. Eagles have been protected by law since the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, because they were in danger of becoming extinct. Thankfully the eagles have rebounded under protection of the law and we can enjoy their majesty today. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 added protection for other species threatened by extinction. Today, killing or possessing any part of an eagle can bring a misdemeanor conviction and fine up to 5,000 dollars, or a felony conviction and fine up to $250,000 or 2 years in prison. A construction company in Florida was convicted of destroying a tree where eagles nested and fined $356,125. The individual worker most responsible was fined $5,000 and put on a 3-year probation. That’s because we value eagles, and rightfully so.

Florida’s Marine Turtle Protection Act permits fines of $100 per egg destroyed and up to $100,000 for destroying a nest or killing a turtle.

Pro-lifers have used the above information to demonstrate the incongruity in our culture. One of the strangest, almost ludicrous, responses that I have ever heard appeared in a debate on the internet: 

Turtles are in danger of extinction. Humans are in danger of overpopulating and destroying the planet. Turtle eggs aren’t a part of a woman’s body, and many women don’t die in the process of giving birth to turtle eggs.

The turtle mom wants her babies.

The most unfair argument in that absurd and wildly inaccurate internet post may be the final sentence: “The turtle wants her babies.” I wonder if the mother would even recognize one of her 100 or more offspring if they bumped into each other in the ocean one day. She will never come back to check on the batch of leathery eggs in the warm sand. But I assure that every aborted baby was wanted. Wanted by somebody. Wanted by a family waiting to adopt. Wanted by a church eager to welcome them to the Sunday gatherings.   

 What perplexes me is that the penalty for destroying a protected animal is greater if a corporation or an institution is involved in the crime. Yet the U.S. Government includes Planned Parenthood (an institution) in the annual budget! No law against killing a baby. In fact, they are rewarded with tax money.

I do not write to condemn any woman who has chosen to abort her offspring. That is not my prerogative. That is God’s. Hopefully, someday, it will once again be the government’s task. 

I believe abortion must be the most painfully difficult choice a woman can make in good conscience. I am grateful that God’s grace is greater than all or any sin. He is the God of mercy and second chances. 

I am not the judge, but I am responsible to be the voice—the Wilberforce, if you please—to cry out in defense of the most vulnerable among us.