John K. Bollard: Threat of tyranny of corporations goes way back

Last modified: Wednesday, July 02, 2014
To the editor:

“Corporations have no souls.” I heard these words on the news in response to this week’s Supreme Court decision about the religious rights of corporations. But I came across that sentence exactly as written, quotation marks and all, neither today nor during the debates that raged about whether corporations are people throughout the coverage of the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission in 2010, the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, and the 2012 presidential election season.

No. That sentence was written early in the summer of 1841 by Alonzo Lewis, the editor of the Lynn (Massachusetts) Record, and reprinted by the renowned abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, on July 2 that same year. They were protesting the violence perpetrated by New England’s newly established railroad corporations against free African Americans who took seats on their trains in the same cars as white passengers, rather than in the shoddy “Jim Crow cars.”

In August that same year, Lewis expanded on his original statement in an article that was also reprinted in The Liberator, writing, “The Tyranny of Corporations has perhaps a more deadly influence in destroying the liberties of our country than any thing else, and should be watched with vigilance by the whole community. They have no souls, no bodies, no consciences, no personal responsibility, but selfishness in abundance. They are sure to take all the power they can get, without regard to the welfare of the people or the rights of individuals.”

It astonishes me and it makes my heart ache that 173 years of history have taught us so little. And it is simultaneously tragic and ludicrous, and unfortunately predictable as well, that the targets of corporate thinking have shifted from African Americans to women in general. One hopes for a better tomorrow, but it will take a great awakening and great effort to actually make tomorrow better.

John K. Bollard