"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Julian Bond, David Reynolds, and Malcolm X on John Brown

Julian Bond's speech at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, which I have supplied below under this date, reflects the best intentions and highest regards befitting the black community's historical appreciation of abolitionist John Brown--and is happily absent of Bond's earlier apologetics in which he differentiated between Brown the hero and Brown the alleged perpetuator of violence.

Besides commemorating the NAACPs pro-Brown demonstrations of 1906, Bond's speech reveals that he has apparently been jolted into action by the publication of David Reynolds's 2005 biography, John Brown Abolitionist, in which the author promotes Brown as "the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights." The Reynolds book leaves a lot to be desired as a work of history, but the author is at least to be credited for moving many people back toward a favorable reading of Brown after so many years of banishment from the favor of American sentimentality.

Unfortunately Reynolds' book is nevertheless conflicted by the author's portrayal of Brown as a "good" terrorist, a kind of Dirty Harry on the Kansas prairie. I have met Reynolds, I like him, and I think his appreciation of Brown is increasing. However in the same manner that his book has caused activists and scholars to reconsider Brown in a positive light, his work has also affirmed the unfortunate terrorist notion that has become the mainstay of so much writing about Brown these days. After reading the text of Bond's speech at Harper's Ferry, it became clear that his own unfortunate apologia was probably informed by Reynolds's ambivalent portrayal. This also explains why Bond felt it necessary to excuse the NAACP's tribute by "admitting" that even though they like him, they too believe Brown was a "perpetuator of violence."

Yet in his speech at Harper's Ferry, Bond skipped over Brown's oh-so-horrible-violence and emphasizes his singular role as a "righteous Caucasian." Referring to the Reynolds book, Bond pointed out that of all the white Americans in U.S. history, Brown has been more widely admired by blacks than even Abraham Lincoln. (My 2002 biography actually precedes Reynolds in demonstrating the uniqueness of Brown's relationship with the black community, but he has made the significant argument that Brown "seeded" civil rights by his life and death.) So what does Bond really believe about John Brown?

Obviously the NAACP leader was also speaking out of the tradition of the NAACP itself, particularly the thinking of DuBois, one of the movement's founders. Interestingly, though, another founder of the NAACP was the white pacificist Oswald G. Villard (grandson of William Lloyd Garrison). Villard wrote the first modern biography of Brown, providing the ambivalent paradigm that Reynolds and Bond have used in both praising him and branding him a violent man.

Incidentally, as I suggest in my earlier commentary on Bond's words, he indeed drew the association of Brown with Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Denmark Vesey as "compatriots" in struggle. Yet in his address there is not the slightest apology on their behalf for their violence (or intended use of violence) against white pro-slavery people. I wonder why Bond felt it necessary to offer a shabby apology for the NAACP's support of Brown, but waxed so boldly in his ceremonial address in speaking of Nat Turner and Brown so heroically?

One last point. Bond included Malcolm X in a list of black leaders who "celebrated" John Brown. As a student of Malcolm, however, my own reading leaves me feeling that Bond is exaggerating. I would not call Malcolm's several recorded references to Brown grudging, but neither would I call them celebrative. I believe Malcolm quietly admired Brown, and my guess is that his awareness of Brown went back to his prison readings in the late 1940s. I suspect (for reasons I have not fully documented) also that Malcolm was probably reading about Brown in the latter phase of his time in the Nation of Islam and thus was troubled by the fact that the abolitionist's legacy frankly debunked the claims of the "Black Muslims." He was not only a "good white," but he fought harder than most black contemporaries and died on behalf of the anti-slavery cause. Any black person who would call such a man a "white devil" would have to be either poisoned in his soul or simply a liar and a charlatan. Elijah Muhammad may have been both, but Malcolm was surely neither. Perhaps if he had not been entangled in Elijah's "straitjacket" religion, he would have admitted that Brown was indeed a "righteous Caucasian" as Bond says.

Even after Malcolm was put out of the Nation of Islam and became an independent leader his remarks about Brown were appreciative but laced with a tone of indifference--as if he was afraid that speaking too warmly about him might cause blacks to slip back into integrationism or provide some self-congratulating relief to whites. Whatever the case, I believe Malcolm X used Brown more as a means of challenging whites who were steeped in the non-violent civil rights mindset by holding him up as a model--probably knowing full well that few if any of them could ever attain such a stature. Otherwise he made it clear he had no intention of celebrating John Brown.

L. DeCaro Jr.

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