If you’ve never heard the name William Wilberforce before, you’re not alone; neither have 96 percent of your fellow Americans.
However, a number of those who are familiar with the 19th-century British politician seem to be based on Capitol Hill, providing a number of ties to an upcoming film and movement on the man who is credited with activism that led to the end of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.
While “Amazing Grace” doesn’t officially open until Feb. 23, Erik Lokkesmoe, project manager for the film, said that despite the name recognition of Wilberforce by only 4 percent of Americans, the pre-release screenings already are getting a warm reception from a variety of audiences across the country, ranging from “progressive cities” to “faith-based communities.”
Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who attended screenings of the film in Reno, Nev., and Las Vegas, considers himself to be a great admirer of the 19th-century parliamentarian.
“I would love to compare myself with Wilberforce, but I think that would be very presumptuous,” Ensign said. “Instead of that, I like to think of him as someone I would model myself after.”
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), once described as a “Wilberforce Republican,” is another fan. Brownback claimed that “William Wilberforce and his monumental achievement is indeed the story of amazing grace” and that “it was [Wilberforce’s] notion of the immensity of human dignity that led him to fight for men and women everywhere and without exception.”
On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) introduced a resolution commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade and honoring Wilberforce’s life and legacy. H. Res. 158 was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee. And last year, the Senate honored Wilberforce with a resolution saluting his life and work. S. Res. 613, which also commemorated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain, was passed with unanimous consent.
Even Lokkesmoe has ties to Capitol Hill. A Washington, D.C., resident and former press secretary to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Lokkesmoe left the National Endowment for the Humanities nine months ago to begin work with the film. He noted part of the success of “Amazing Grace” could be the film’s message of empowerment.
“‘Amazing Grace’ is more than just a movie,” Lokkesmoe explained. “It is a movement to carry on Wilberforce’s vision of justice and mercy … it is a ‘feel-good movie,’ yes, but it is also a ‘do-good’ movie. Audiences leave inspired to be a part of something great in their neighborhoods and nation.”
The movement Lokkesmoe speaks about falls under the title of “Amazing Change” (www.amazingchange.com). With the backing of human and civil rights groups such as the International Justice Mission, Free the Slaves and ChildVoice International, the Amazing Change movement aims to raise awareness and activism about slavery that, according to Lokkesmoe, is still very much a part of today’s society.
“Some say there are 27 million men, women and children still held captive,” Lokkesmoe said, adding that this total is “more than the number of slaves during the slave trade 200 years ago.”
Amazing Change also involves “The Petition to End Modern Day Slavery,” which will be presented to the House and Senate in the spring. By the time the petition reaches the Hill, Lokkesmoe and other supporters hope to collect 390,000 signatures — the same number surmised by Wilberforce almost 200 years ago.
After “eight months of collecting signatures, we hope to present it to Congress in March,” Lokkesmoe said. “We hope to have hundreds of thousands of people on that petition to present the fact that there is a national movement and interest in ending this great evil.”
Lokkesmoe said the film and movement may even shed a positive light on the power of democracy.
“The film is beautiful because it shows the good politics can do,” Lokkesmoe said. “I think that’s why people are drawn to it. People are excited because finally there [is] a new vision for political leadership that seeks companions for the common good.”
Ensign also has faith in the power of this film to both inspire and attract activists for positive change to Washington.
“The vast majority of people think that politicians are corrupt, greedy [and] in it for themselves,” Ensign said. “I hope that this film inspires a lot more people to do good in politics and … to look for issues that are bigger than themselves. And I hope it inspires other good people to go into politics.”