The 1860s-Era Wide Awakes Are Back With Bold New Capes and a Mission to Make “Joy an Act of Resistance”

Emilee Geist

In 1860, two diametrically opposed foes ran against each other for the president of the United States. The candidates were Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and John C. Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat. The election took place during a time when the country was deeply divided over slavery, territorial borders, and workers […]

In 1860, two diametrically opposed foes ran against each other for the president of the United States. The candidates were Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and John C. Breckinridge, a Southern Democrat. The election took place during a time when the country was deeply divided over slavery, territorial borders, and workers rights. After Lincoln was elected, the Civil War began.

Fast-forward to 2020, and we’re on the precipice of another contentious, terrifying election with two deeply divided sides of the country—one that puts God and country first and the other that puts human liberties and social justice first. But aside from drawing parallels between the perils of a discombobulated democracy then and now, there are also similarities between the two eras when it comes to advocacy and activism. 

Tomorrow, an 1860s-era youth organization called the Wide Awakes will make a timely return. The Wide Awakes were, back in that day, a diverse group of young Republicans who supported Lincoln and the abolition of slavery. They represented a youthful, hopeful generation that believed strongly in democracy, civil liberties, and basic human rights. It began with five store clerks who marched behind Lincoln after a rallying campaign speech he gave in Hartford, Connecticut. They provided him with a parade and torch-lit escort, and they wore oilcloth capes in order to protect their clothing and skin from the dripping wax of the torches. The movement then gained momentum in the Northern states, and on October 3, 1860, 10,000 Wide Awakes marched three miles through the city of Chicago. By the time Lincoln was elected, the group counted some 500,000 members. 

The Wide Awakes of 2020, however, look a little bit different. Cofounded by the artist Hank Willis Thomas, photographer Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery, the group includes hip-hop king Fab 5 Freddy, the Roots’ Tariq Trotter, and artist José Parlá, among many others. The new Wide Awakes group was born out of Thomas’s political organization For Freedoms, which he founded just before the election in 2016. Since December 2019, they’ve been planning this year’s October 3rd march from their home base in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The processions are set to take place around the country, beginning at locations that include the Brooklyn Museum, Times Square, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, and more. In addition to spotlighting these starting points for tomorrow’s nationwide marches, the 2020 Wide Awakes website also provides information for those who would like to start their own activations in their local communities. 

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