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Heroism, terror part of Manchester's history

A May 22 explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England left at least 22 people dead and 59 others injured. (Sign up for our free video newsletter here)

The tragic news from Manchester breaks one's heart. The targeting of children marks a new level of depravity by ISIS, one that sickens the civilized world.

Manchester is an ancient city, founded by Roman legionnaires less than 80 years after the birth of Christ. Yet in the 19th century, it became the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Marveling at the size and spread of cotton mills, railroads and commerce, Benjamin Disraeli, the two-time U.K. prime minister, in 1844 called the city "as great a human exploit as Athens." In the century and more that followed, Manchester has been an incubator of modern ideas ranging from capitalism to communism, from computing to atomic theory, from trade unionism to women's suffrage to LGBT rights.

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From its Free Trade Hall, the intellectual underpinnings of free trade and laissez-faire economics spread throughout the world. Manchester created the first intercity railroad, Europe's first free elementary school, and has been called the engine room of rock 'n' roll. The Bee Gees, before they moved to Australia, the Smiths and Davy Jones of the Monkees all hailed from the streets of Manchester.

In an alcove of Chetham's Library, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels drafted "The Communist Manifesto." Emmeline Pankhurst and her sister suffragettes first took a stand for equality and votes for women in Manchester's red brick streets. In the halls of Manchester University, Alan Turing, the gay man whose work broke the Nazi Enigma Code, developed the basics of modern computing. And on the pitch of Old Trafford, a young Manchester United footballer showed a spellbound world how to bend it like Beckham.

Sadly, terror and the death of innocents are a part of Manchester's history. The Nazis killed roughly 700 during the Christmas Blitz of 1940 and injured more than 2,000 others. More recently, in 1996, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) detonated a 3,300-pound truck bomb in the city's center. Unlike ISIS, the IRA sent warnings an hour and a half before the blast. While 75,000 people were evacuated to safety, more than 200 people were injured by the largest bomb detonated in Britain since the end of World War II.

From the rubble of that blast, Manchester built the stunning arena that was the sight of Monday's attack. No indoor space in Britain has more seats. From its opening night in 1995, when British Olympians Christopher Dean and Jayne Torville attracted the largest audience in skating history, the arena has been one of the world's greatest venues. More than a million spectators come each year, rivaling the crowds at Madison Square Garden.

At this difficult moment in Manchester's history, it is worth recalling the courage and moral clarity expressed by their people during the darkest days in American history. At the height of our Civil War, the textile workers of Liverpool and Manchester found their livelihoods at risk because of Abraham Lincoln's blockade of cotton picked by the enslaved people of the Southern states.

The merchants of Liverpool sought to have the Royal Navy smash the blockade. But the workers of Manchester stood with Lincoln and the cause of democracy. They took a heroic stand in support of the blockade at a public meeting attended by thousands. Their extraordinary act marked one of the first efforts in history of workers organizing in support of democratic values, a legacy that continues in the modern trade union movement.

President Lincoln recognized the suffering his blockade caused the workers of Manchester. Writing to thank them for their selfless support, Lincoln praised their "decisive utterances" in opposition to slavery.

He described their heroism as "sublime" and noted that it had "not been surpassed in any age or in any country." Moreover, Lincoln continued, Manchester had provided "an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent power of truth, and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom."

Lincoln's words in support of Manchester resonate across the ages to today.

Gregory J. King (gjwking@gmail.com) is a former director of public affairs at the National Labor Relations Board; he lives in Bolton Hill.

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