, Salem, MA


November 5, 2012

Shribman: He died in defense of free speech


Like Martin Luther King Jr., whose remarks eerily foreshadowed his death in April 1968, Lovejoy acknowledged the risk he was taking in November 1837:

“If the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God, and if I die, I have determined to make my grave in Alton. I have sworn eternal opposition to slavery, and by the blessings of God I will never turn back. With God I cheerfully rest my cause. I can die at my post, but I cannot desert it.”

Four days later, Lovejoy arranged for a fourth press to be transported stealthily by riverboat to Alton, where it was placed in a stone warehouse. Word leaked out. A mob appeared. Epithets and rocks were hurled. Shots rang out. The mob prepared to set the rooftop afire. Lovejoy ran out to prevent it. He was shot dead two days short of his 35th birthday.

Moments later, members of the mob entered the warehouse, rushing past his body in their zeal to dismantle the object of their fear, the press itself. They dropped its parts from windows. Then they smashed what remained.

But they did not silence him. Today, the name of the shooter and the identities of the mob members are unknown, but the words of the martyr endure, if only to a small band of scholars and journalists. Here are some of those words:

“There is no way to escape the mob but to abandon the path of duty, and that, God helping me, I will never do.”

Lovejoy did not abandon his duty, and Colby did not abandon its onetime star student. Since 1952, the college has presented the Lovejoy Award to a journalist of courage selected by a group of editors. (I have served on this committee for several years, an homage to Lovejoy and to my two brothers, who hold Colby degrees.)

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