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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Collateral Damage: Splinter Cell's "John Brown's Army"

I realize it is all in fun, but it is nevertheless unfortunate to say the least. In Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell video game series, we have another case of popular culture skewing John Brown the abolitionist. In decades gone by, the slurring of Brown's persona for entertainment purposes has largely been accomplished by film makers and novelists. While notable historians have done significantly more to harm Brown's reputation in the academy, popular art has gone a long way in sustaining the notion of a violent, crazy John Brown in the mind of many people in the United States.

As if this were not enough, Clancy's video series has brought this prejudice into the 21st century by placing it in the hands of myriads of teens and young adults playing on PCs, X-Box, and Play Station.

According to Answers.com, Clancy's games feature an "American terrorist organization" called "John Brown's Army" (JBA). The JBA's founder and leader is the ruthless Emile Dufraisne, an "imposing figure with a shaved head and a Southern drawl," a villain convinced that he is "destined for greatness." Clancy's villain has killed police officers from his youth; he "despises the United States government, believing it to be corrupt, and feels the only way to achieve social change is through radical revolution."

While Clancy's Dufraisne is not a replica of John Brown the abolitionist, the fact that his organization is named "John Brown's Army" is strongly suggestive that any such "terrorist organization" in the U.S. must be ideologically linked to the real John Brown's legacy. Certainly Clancy thinks so.

Unfortunately, Clancy's fictional JBA will further add to the bias and misinformation that abounds in popular culture with respect to John Brown's legacy. Our John Brown was no "domestic terrorist." If anything, he was a counter-terrorist who protected his family and struck hard at the pro-slavery thuggery that abounded in Kansas in the mid-1850s. Clancy's JBA is a criminal organization, the fact of which will exacerbate older negative associations in the minds of young people and adults who know little or nothing about the abolitionist.

I wish someone would do a Play Station game about John Brown the abolitionist--you know, where he's the good guy for a change. He could be armed with a Colt revolver, a Sharp's rifle, and a pike. He could kick pro-slavery butt and bring an end to the racist regime by establishing a truly reformed U.S. democracy--a real one, based on egalitarian principle, not capitalism and pigmentocracy like the nation in which we live. That's a game I would buy.--LD

Thursday, February 08, 2007

History, Black and Blurred: John Brown and Malcolm X according to James Smalls

In 2000, James Smalls, a leading black scholar in the Harlem community, appeared on “The Gilchrist Experience,” a local cable talk show hosted by producer Winston Gilchrist on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Gilchrist regularly re-broadcasts past shows such as the episode featuring Smalls, which was taped not long after the outrageous and treacherous shooting of Amadou Diallo, an innocent African bystander, by New York City police officers in the Bronx. According to Gilchrist, the theme of the evening was “crime in the urban community,” although the opportunity was not lost on Smalls to expound upon the history of the United States with respect to the expansive program of slavery and violent subjugation that co-exists with the hypocritical textbook claims of American democracy and freedom.

I would never presume to question Smalls' right (or any black man’s right, for that matter) to express his disgust, resentment, and indignation over the history of racism in this society, or the ongoing crises and casualties resulting from the basic inequity and injustice that still permeates U.S. society. In fact, there is little that Professor Smalls could say that would disturb me insofar as he speaks the truth about this nation and its prevailing sin, which still plagues us both as a problem of individuals as well as systems. In other words, Smalls may let fly whatever criticisms and accusations he wishes about white society, the founders of this nation, and the ongoing hypocrisies practiced by so many claiming to be devotees of justice in the land. I have no ax to grind with him because he is a “race critic.”

Nevertheless, despite his lengthy career of education, activism, and interaction with some of the greatest minds of the black community in the 20th century, I was more than disappointed at certain remarks Smalls made in this 2000 interview with respect to both John Brown and Malcolm X. As the reader will observe from my exact transcription of a segment of the interview, Professor Smalls, like Jehu of old, allowed his zeal to lead him along a path of wild and destructive conclusions. Even granting that he was speaking in anger over the wicked police killing of Diallo, the fact remains that Smalls’ reckless words do a disservice to the historical record and insult the souls of two great men.

I don’t know any white Americans that believe in freedom. If they do they should be martyrs, having been killed fighting for freedom in America. And don’t mention John Brown, because John Brown was fighting for white folks in Kansas; he simply saw freeing black folks as a way of keeping the slave masters and the big rich white people from taking control of Kansas where poor whites was trying to make a living.

Now that was one of Malcolm’s heroes. . . .

Malcolm made mistakes otherwise he wouldn’t be dead [Gilchrist chuckles]. I love Malcolm, but I’m not going to make him god. Malcolm was a hell of a brother, but he made serious, critical errors, both in judgment and he was operating in [audio distortion] for a history about John Brown. . . .1

These kinds of polemical generalizations suggest that despite his academic expertise, there is something of the “Shock Jock” in James Smalls--that he would rather throw out whopping half-truths and arrogant judgments rather than deal, as an educator, in the record of history.

“John Brown was Fighting for White Folks”

Take for instance his readiness to jettison John Brown from the record of the black community’s allies. This is deliberate on Smalls’ part. He mentions Brown first, and then dismisses him on the basis that he allegedly fought in Kansas to save the territory for “poor whites.” Indeed, Smalls says, Brown “simply saw freeing black folks as a way of keeping the slave masters and the big rich white people from taking control of Kansas.”

That Smalls could make such a claim strikes me as the height of malice and ignorance, and it is hard to judge which of the two reigns greater in the mind of the professor. To suggest that Brown only played off of the black struggle in order to keep Kansas for poor whites is unwarranted by the evidence, unheard of in any biography (including especially his black biographers like DuBois and Quarles), and downright stupid for a man of Smalls’ age and stature as a scholar.

I am not laboring under the assumption that because Smalls is black that therefore he must adore and elevate John Brown. From what I read of the man, Smalls has his idols, and they are black. How he fares on judgment day in that regard is between him and the Creator. However, I am persuaded that unless Smalls wishes to be labeled a prejudiced hack, he should go back to school on John Brown.

1. Smalls should realize that his claim about Brown in Kansas is all wrong. Brown was long concerned for the black struggle and the evidence suggests he hoped to launch his efforts toward black liberation without going to Kansas, but was forced by family concerns to go westward in 1855. John Brown’s primary reason for going and staying in Kansas was to aid and protect his sons and their families, and then to use all his power to stop the territory from becoming a slave state.

2. As Smalls would know if he took the time to study Brown’s life, both he and his family were outspoken and radical in their commitment to black equality–something that was not common even among anti-slavery and free state people in the antebellum era. The evidence shows that it was their outspoken commitment to black equality that made the Browns a target of Southern terrorists while in Kansas, and when Brown fought (and killed) such people, he did so, not only for self-defense, but as the logical necessity of his pro-black position. Most of the free-state Kansans even thought the Browns fanatical in this regard.

3. Who does Smalls–-Africentrist and Yoruba priest that he is-–presume himself to be in dissenting from the ancestors who knew and collaborated with John Brown and found him a true friend and ally? Even the blacks most disappointed by Brown, such as those who saw him fail at Harper’s Ferry, never spoke with anything less than appreciation and salutation for his willingness to live and die for the enslaved. Never did a black man or woman who knew him ever have the arrogant audacity to question Brown’s single-minded devotion to black freedom. But James Smalls not only dismisses Brown like some angry college sophomore, but pontificates of his alleged insincerity, exploitative, and opportunistic use of the black struggle. Perhaps Smalls has mistaken his presumption for fact, or as he come to believe that whatever he says IS history?

“Malcolm Made Mistakes, Otherwise He Wouldn’t Be Dead”

If that were not bad enough, Smalls made matters worse when responding to host Gilchrist’s remark that even Malcolm X looked up to John Brown, something that is itself questionable. (Malcolm never praised Brown in obvious terms, but he did uphold him as an example of the kind of white ally that he wished to see for the black community.) Of course, Gilchrist is no scholar, so he may be forgiven for suggesting that Brown was Malcolm’s “hero.” However, he may not be forgiven for chuckling at Smalls’ arrogant rejoinder: “Malcolm made mistakes otherwise he wouldn’t be dead.”

To suggest that Malcolm was reached by the murderous “Black Muslims” who killed him on February 21, 1965 because of his own “mistake” is a cruel and misleading statement, and the fact that Gilchrist chuckled at this remark makes him seem far less worthy to host a black-centered talk show in New York City. Malcolm lost his life because a determined conspiracy of assassins under the orders of Elijah Muhammad and his officials were unrelenting in their efforts to kill him. Malcolm lost his life because police and government agents turned a blind eye to this conspiracy and even took comfort in watching it unfold to its tragic outcome. Malcolm lost his life because the black men who “followed” him, almost to a man, were too irresponsible, weak, and careless to protect their hero. Malcolm most certainly died alone-–like most prophets-–because his male followers either abandoned him or were so childishly dependent upon him for emotional gratification that they were actually incapable of structuring the kind of security that he really needed. As if this were not enough, many "black-minded" people continue to heap insult upon Malcolm’s spirit because they cling to Louis Farrakhan and others who, in Malcolm’s day, were his mortal enemies, and still resent and undermine his reputation while Malcolm is mouldering in the grave.

Malcolm and John Brown

Finally, Smalls seems to think that he knows more about John Brown than Malcolm did. The tape at this point in the interview is unclear, but it is evident that Smalls concluded by suggesting that Malcolm erred in the reading or evaluating of historical sources in his time. If this is the case, what proof does Smalls have? Malcolm likely read substantially on Brown’s life, at least the biographies of Villard and DuBois. He was also skilled in reading between the lines of white scholars who condemned Brown as violent and crazy. Malcolm was an excellent student of history and he would never have made assertions about Brown without reading well into his life. Obviously the same cannot be said for James Smalls, who in one fell swoop in 2000, showed himself to be a wounded, angry, and petty man informed by ignorant assumptions inflated to the point of self-delusion by hubris. As to Malcolm, one would not ask Smalls to make him a god; but one would ask him to handle the slain hero with respect and discretion, and not sprinkle such condescending mockery on his grave. As for John Brown, it matters little to me if Smalls praises or salutes him. I really could care less if Brown fits into his pantheon of friends and allies (although he evidently has some “good” whites in his pantheon, which he also mentioned, as having marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). Black people are long past the point when they need to uplift white allies; there are too many black heroes and martyrs to recognize. Still it would be nice if Smalls--son of the South and scion of enslaved but noble Africans in America-–would at least not betray John Brown with brutus daggers of ignorant dismissal. Brown deserves better than that. Certainly John Brown was a better man than James Smalls will ever be.

1 James Smalls, interviewed by Winston Gilchrist on The Gilchrist Experience, 2000 (New York: Manhattan Neighborhood Network, Channel 34), re-broadcast on February 7, 2007.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

James McPherson on John Brown: "More a Freedom Fighter than a Terrorist"

Pulitzer Prize-winning author James M. McPherson has a new book out entitled This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press). According to Oxford's website, the book "is a collection of essays on topics as disparate as the average soldier's avid love of newspapers to the postwar creation of the mystique of a Lost Cause in the South." A brief author's interview is also featured, which includes a question and answer concerning our man Brown. This excerpt is of particular interest:

Q: You write in “Escape and Revolt in Black and White” that some historians consider John Brown a terrorist. What is your personal opinion?

McPherson: I tend to look upon John Brown more as a freedom fighter than as a terrorist, recognizing however, that there is sometimes a thin to non-existent line between them. John Brown's goals were noble, but his means were not always praiseworthy.


Comment: It is a positive sign, hopefully, of things to come in the 21st century, that scholars--particularly leading white academics of the caliber of Prof. McPherson--are beginning to correct the stubborn prejudice that has prevailed in the Academy with respect to John Brown since the mid-20th century. There is a growing number of scholars (particularly since the publication of Prof. Reynolds' notable biography of 2005) who acknowledge Brown's role, at least in partial terms, as positive. Of course in my own forthcoming work I do not cast Brown at all as a terrorist, but rather as a counter-terrorist.

The alleged non-praiseworthy "means" of Brown are in themselves too often skewed and inflated to outrageous proportions by those who despise Brown. McPherson and others have been far kinder to Brown. They seem to recognize, finally, that most of the negative characterizations of Brown formerly were subjective if not biased and one-sided. Others, myself included, argue that apart from the Pottawatomie killings of 1856, there is really little else that can be raised as not being praiseworthy in Brown's "means." If anything, the degree to which Brown sought to avoid excessive violence, unwarranted bloodshed, vendetta, and vengeance are a high tribute to the sterling character of the man. The truth be told, Brown's greatest undoing at Harper's Ferry was based upon his inclination to worry too much about the welfare of his prisoners. Hardly a terrorist prototype.

Considering the bloodthirsty, racist brutes that plagued Kansas in the 1850s, or shortly afterward, the murderous Quantrill, and later the ruthless racist Confederate terrorist, Nathan Bedford Forrest, it seems ludicrous to class John Brown with them. Brown was a godly gentleman and deserves at least to be put in the company of the South's romanticized heroes like Jackson, Stuart, and Lee, who jointly used their gifts and talents to the detriment of a whole generation by preserving and extending a hopeless and unjust cause. In my opinion, of course, Brown was by far a better man than these pious pro-slavery figures. He was certainly a truer Christian, for he died to set men at liberty, not to sustain their bondage in the name of "independence."--LD

Please note that you can read the entire interview on the OUP website at: http://blog.oup.com/oupblog/2007/02/a_few_questions.html

Monday, February 05, 2007

Black History Month: Adirondack Stories, from the Adirondack Almanack blog

Adirondack Slaves

The first slaves arrived in New Netherlands in the 1620s and before slavery was finally, albeit gradually, abolished in New York in 1827, we have numerous examples of slaves in the Adirondacks. Several were taken captive by French and Indian raiders who attacked the Schuyler plantation (then Old Saratoga, now present day Schuylerville) in 1745. They were transported along the Lake George, Lake Champlain corridor to Canada. Black slaves (and some free blacks) were at the siege of Fort William Henry by Montcalm in 1757 and at the Fort George in 1780. At Whitehall, slaves owned by Philip Skene (who had a daughter that was half African American) probably mined the iron for cannonballs used by Benedict Arnold at Valcour Island in 1776. William Gilliland's diary frequently mentioned "my negro Ireland" who cleared Gilliland's land and planted his crops. Census records of the poor house in Warrensburgh noted two former female slaves were residents in 1850.

Solomon Northup

Though his father had been a slave, Solomon Northup was born free in Minerva, Essex County in 1808. He worked as a hack driver and played the violin in hotels in Saratoga Springs until, while visiting Washington DC in 1841, he was kidnapped by James H. Burch and sold into slavery to Theophilius Freeman of New Orleans. Freeman sold Northup to William Ford for $1,000 and Ford later sold him to John M. Tibeats who in time threatened to have him executed for the "crime" of resisting being whipped. Ford intervened and Northup was sold to Edwin Epps. After a chance encounter with a Canadian named Bass, Solomon Northup's situation was related to his wife Anne and by her to Henry B. Northrup, a lawyer from the family which had owned Solomon's father. Citing a New York State law passed on May 14, 1840 that required that a free black New York residents unlawfully forced into slavery must be returned to freedom, New York's Governor appointed Henry Northup to proceed to Louisiana and bring back Solomon Northup, which he did on January 4, 1853. Solomon Northup later wrote a narrative of his travails, Twelve Years a Slave.


In 1846, the prominent New York land speculator and abolitionist Gerrit Smith decided to give away 120,000 acres in Essex and Franklin counties to African-Americans. The acreage was settled between 1846-1853 and named for the West African capital of the 15th and 16th century. The scattered settlements were granted to 3,000 black New Yorkers and although dismissed as a dismal failure by later Adirondack historians, census records indicate that black families held land in at five Adirondack counties. A community at Vermontville was settled by African Americans until the 1940s, a settlement near Loon Lake was called Blacksville into the 1870s. The largest community at North Elba sent three men to fight in the Civil War, one of whom - William Appo - was killed at Bull Run. One settler and local guide, Lyman Epps, cut one of the first trails to Indian Pass and was present at both John Brown's funeral, and at the transfer of the Brown farm to the state in 1896. Epps' son lived in North Elba until his death in 1942.

The Undergorund Railroad and Adirondack Abolitionists

The Adirondack region was a primary route for escaped slaves fleeing to Canada. Abolitionists who helped them in their passage on the Underground Railroad were scattered throughout the region in places like Chestertown, Warrensburgh, Thurman, Essex, Peru (then called Quaker Union), Crown Point, Elizabethtown, Keeseville, North Elba, New Russia, Ogdensburg, Malone, and Saranac Lake. Plenty of other Adirondackers supported slavery - the local opposition to the Anti-Slavery Convention of Clinton County in 1837 in Plattsburgh is just one example - but a large number of Adirondackers were either abolitionist or had abolitionist leanings. There was a well known Champlain steamboat Molineaux, named for Tom Molineaux, a southern slave who won his freedom in a boxing match and then went on to England to box for the World Heavyweight Title in 1810. James G. Clark, of Dresden in Washington County, was well known for his 1856 song “Ho! For the Kansas Plains” an antislavery song dedicated to Henry Ward Beetcher that Clark wrote after the burning of Lawrence, Kansas by William Quantrell’s Raiders in May 1856.

Isaac Johnson

Isaac Johnson was born in Kentucky in 1844 and spent his youth in slavery on a farm on the banks of Green River. His father's name was Richard Yeager, but in later life he took his mother's maiden name - his grandfather, Griffin Yeager, was a slave trader who captured and enslaved his mother in Madagascar in 1840. When Union soldiers arrived near the farm where Johnson was being held during the Civil War he fled into their protection and later enlisted. After the war he returned to work for his old master for wages and eventually found his way to St. Lawrence County where he worked as an accomplished stonemason and in Ogdensburg in 1901 he wrote his own life story - Slavery Days in Old Kentucky.

The Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad

“This city resembled Washington during war times,” the March 29, 1892 Boston Globe reported, “hundreds of penniless and destitute Negroes are camped out tonight in the temporary places of shelter given them, and the citizens of Utica are consulting as to the best means of returning them to their homes.” The Globe told readers that all night, “runaway slaves” had been coming into Utica. One hundred and fifty of them, mostly southern black hand laborers from Tennessee and the Carolinas, had walked the nearly one hundred miles from the crude railroad work camps of the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad then being laid north of the Bog River near Tupper Lake. They wore “the thinnest of covering to protect them from the chill winter blasts” and arrived skinny, hungry, and tired. Town leaders in Utica decided immediately to send the men home at public expense, but already their arrival had signaled a great controversy about the Adirondack & St. Lawrence – namely, that African American men were being practically enslaved to build the railroad. Hundreds of them fled the Adirondack & St. Lawrence work camps but when the New York State Board of Arbitration investigated their claims of torture, murder, and virtual enslavement, it dismissed them all, save for the conduct of one Kentucky born contractor who was found to have been "cruel" to the men.

Lake George Segregation

In the 1920s, when Lake George was a segregated town, African Americans unable to find lodging at the resorts many hotels could find a place to stay at the black-owned Woodbine Hotel. Samuel and Dorothy McFerson were host to the famous like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Sammy Davis Jr., but also to the many African American tourists, waitstaff, and servants of all sorts who worked the white hotels of Lake George. The McFerson's daughter Shirley, later served as a librarian in the Lake George library. Segregation persisted with the help of local racist such as those who gathered in July of 1928 on Route 9 to hold a Klan rally, complete with burning cross.

African American Miners

Republic Steel brought more than 100 African American miners from Greenville, North Carolina to the Essex County iron ore mines in the early part of the 20th century. Mostly former sharecroppers, they found life in Port Henry and Witherbee wasn't much different than it had been in the south. They reported being abused by their bosses, and frequently shorted come payday for the dangerous and difficult work. At Port Henry they were refused service in the town's restaurants Jim Crow style. A daughter of one of those miners is Alice Paden Green, now Director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany. Now known in the Essex County area for her sponsorship of The Paden Institute and Retreat for Writers of Color and her work with the progressive / radical historical activist group John Brown Lives!, Alice was instrumental in getting the NY Green Party ballot status when she ran for Lt. Governor with "Grandpa" Al Lewis some years ago. In 2005 Alice Green received nearly 25 percent of the vote in her run as candidate for Mayor of Albany on the Green Party line.

Suggested Reading
Solomon Northup's Twelve Years A Slave
Isaac Johnson's Slavery Days in Old Kentucky
Tom Calarco's The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region

Friday, February 02, 2007

John Brown and Malcolm X:
The Parallels of History

Apart from their respective lives of self-sacrifice and devotion to human rights in the case of black people, there seems to be very little that the 19th century abolitionist John Brown and the 20th century activist Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz) would have in common. They are men of different times and historical epochs, and they arose at different stages in the ongoing struggle of black liberation in the United States. In everything from politics to transportation, they are truly men of different worlds. Of course, they are men of different “races” (“race” being a social construction, not a biological fact, I place the word in quotation marks), and therefore had different experiences vis-a-vis “race” and its privileges in a white-centered society. Along with epoch and “race,” there is also the religious factor, Brown having been an evangelical Calvinist Christian, and Malcolm a Muslim.

Yet I would suggest there are some interesting parallels in their lives that may serve to be instructive for students of history and advocates for justice.

1. While subsequently embraced by the popular justice movements of their times, neither John Brown nor Malcolm X were ever deeply involved in or committed to those movements. Instead they moved in alternative streams of activism and ideology.

John Brown is rightly remembered as an abolitionist, yet he must be so only on his own terms. Insofar as the abolitionist movement of his day, he never joined it and was increasingly critical of abolitionist leadership and strategy in the antebellum era. Although his father and relatives were affiliated with abolitionist societies and institutions, the facts of his life show that Brown never joined a state or local abolitionist society. Instead, he tended to prefer to develop his own plan of action, whether assisting fugitive slaves to escape, organizing a militant defense organization, or ultimately devising his strategy to undermine slavery in the South. Of course Brown knew and interacted with abolitionists, particularly black anti-slavery activists; he also got significant personal and financial support from certain New England abolitionists (usually dubbed the “Secret Six”). Yet he never submitted to any abolitionist’s directives nor was he a joiner. To be sure, Brown sympathized with abolitionists over against the normative racism of northern society as well as slavery in the South. But he was also highly critical of the abolitionist movement and quietly scorned it in his belief that he could accomplish more by his action plan than by their oratory and "moral suasion" programs.

Malcolm X runs along an imperfect parallel insofar as his relationship to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. An equally high-minded man in his convictions, young Malcolm had family roots in the black nationalist tradition of Marcus Garvey. While Malcolm admired his Garveyite roots, he never joined Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), even though his parents had been UNIA activists. Malcolm did join a movement, unlike Brown, when he gave his heart, mind, and soul to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam in the 1940s while serving a term in prison in Massachusetts. Yet a substantial theme in Malcolm’s Nation of Islam years is not only his harsh criticism of the larger Civil Rights movement, but also his own evolving independent leadership. It was his independent and moral integrity as a “Black Muslim” that ultimately led to a falling out with the movement, which in turn resulted in his ouster from (and later assassination by) the "Black Muslim" cult. More importantly, Malcolm remained a critic of the Civil Rights movement, just as Brown had criticized the abolitionist movement of his day. To be sure, Malcolm’s posture as an independent leader in 1964-65 show his willingness to dialogue and even collaborate with Civil Rights leaders, and he enjoyed a quiet but warm rapport with such black Civil Rights giants as Whitney Young and James Farmer. Had he not been murdered by his former “Black Muslim” brethren, Malcolm would likely have developed greater working relationships with the “accepted” black leadership. Yet he would neither have joined nor acquiesced to the prerequisites of the Civil Rights movement. Just as in life both men were strongly independent in their thinking, after their deaths, both Brown and Malcolm became lightning rods of sympathy and insight to the respective “civil rights” movements of their day. While Brown and Malcolm had criticized these movements and remained largely on the margin of their activities while in life, both the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements benefitted in real terms because of the example and sacrificial deaths of these heroic “lone rangers.”

2. Another parallel between John Brown and Malcolm X pertains to their respective religious commitments. The parallel is surely not found within the religions they embraced: Brown would never have accepted the claims of Muhammad and the Qur’an nor surrendered the doctrine of Christ's divine lordship and propitiation for sins according to the Bible. Malcolm rejected Christianity as being hopelessly contaminated by white supremacy, and likewise rejected the theological claims of orthodox Christianity as any Muslim would have done. Yet the parallel existing between the two leaders here rests more on the unique manner in which they blended devout and personal religious faith with militancy in a manner that defied the norms of their respective religious cultures.

Brown was a “born again” Christian with strong roots in the Protestant Reformation. He practiced a strong piety and personal spirituality reflected in daily prayers and Bible study that would rival any devout pastor or clergyman then or now. Every testimony by those who remembered him attests to the fact that John Brown was a genuine believer in the Christian faith. His correspondence is pregnant with scriptural allusions and reveals someone deeply rooted in a Puritan world and life view.

Malcolm, though a wayward youth, became a devout and extremely conservative and penitent young minister in the Nation of Islam. A devout reader of the Bible and the Qur’an, Malcolm’s life by all accounts is “squeaky clean” in comparison to many of his contemporaries in both Christianity and Islam. When he was put out of the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam and thereafter became certified to spread Islam in the west. Had he lived, I have no doubt that he would have moved increasingly toward the religious sphere in expression of his activism, and probably would have become the foremost advocate of Islam in the western hemisphere. He was genuinely and devoted to pursuing a life of religious purity and service that many of his secular-minded admirers tend to overlook.

Yet in the case of both men, their piety and religious devotion has either been criticized or misunderstood because they believed in the spiritual integrity of militancy when applied to a just cause. While many critics have scored them for embracing “violence,” as essentially religious men their belief was that pacifism and so-called non-violence were inadequate and unworthy weapons in the face of a monstrous system of violent injustice. Both men preferred dialogue and democratic prerogatives to the use of force; but neither were willing to lay down the sword in the face of racist terrorism brought on by the failure or treachery of racist governments. Brown and Malcolm, however different in religious terms, shared the common belief that divine justice required good men to take up arms in order to oppose militant injustice. Both men believed that time and effort had already been too far expended on the dreams and strategies of pacifists, and that justice required the moral and righteous individual to take up arms when necessary. Both hoped that by making a unique blend of religion and militancy, greater war and bloodshed could actually be avoided.

Consequently both men shared the “tightrope” frustration so aptly described by Malcolm when he complained that he was considered too political for the religious, and too religious for the political. Neither men fit the mold of their respective conservative, passive religious brethren. Neither men saw a tension between righteous living and the use of force when necessary. Neither men were impressed by religions that bound the hands of the oppressed and promised liberation through pacifist ideals. And neither men had patience for mere oratory, both Brown and Malcolm having sought to establish their own essentially religious efforts in order to fight against racial oppression.

Finally in this regard is the unusual openness they manifested toward people of differing religious beliefs as long as they were allies in the struggle for freedom. While both Brown and Malcolm (at their most mature phases of activism) were “orthodox” and believed in submission to the authority of divinely inspired sacred texts, they freely and comfortably associated with political allies with whom they strongly differed in religious terms. Brown was friendly with Quakers, Spiritualists, Transcendentalists, and others who would otherwise have disdained his evangelical views; he did not shun or prohibit such opinions from being expressed in debate and discussion among his men, and he was willing to collaborate with such dissenters as long as they were committed to the anti-slavery cause. Malcolm not only exemplified a similar attitude but he criticized any organization or group that would not work with differing groups for the common cause of black liberation. Malcolm befriended and interacted with Christian clergymen in Harlem, founded a non-religious organization to unite black people of differing religious and philosophical views, interacted with agnostic and atheistic Leftists, and enjoyed personal friendships with allies of many different religious orientations. This kind of inward stability and mature social flexibility enabled them to build networks of association across religious lines while other leaders could work only with those of their own religious persuasion, or in spheres where religion was set aside entirely.

3. A final parallel between Malcolm and John Brown is seen in how they stand in relation to U.S. history in a number of ways. As far as African Americans are concerned, Brown has long been greatly admired, dating from the time of his hanging in 1859. Although that appreciation has lessened considerably in popular terms in our era, there is still a loyal memory of devotion to Brown in the collective mind of the black community. This loyal memory quietly surfaced last year as both CORE and the NAACP, leading black organizations, made public acknowledgment of Brown’s life and liberation activities. Obviously, Malcolm is greatly admired in the black community. In the forty-two years since his assassination, he has to a great degree eclipsed the “big” leaders of the Civil Rights movement of his time, many of whom are sadly forgotten. In memory, Malcolm also rivals Martin Luther King Jr., and even though the “mainstream” media uplift King as the singular representative figure of the Civil Rights era, the story and impact of Malcolm X continues to shadow (if not overshadow) that of the Reverend King.

Brown and Malcolm also have a “flexible” appeals across political, religious, and ideological spectrums. For instance, while Brown and Malcolm are admired by Leftist scholars and activists, they are also embraced by politically and religiously traditional writers and historians. Leftists naturally see these men as enemies of the capitalist system and certainly have grounds for seeing both men as militant advocates on behalf of the oppressed and powerless. Conservatives identify with Brown’s and Malcolm’s criticism of “liberals” in their respective eras and recognize the conservative values they expressed in life and action. While there are elements of truth in both perspectives, neither side can entirely claim Brown or Malcolm because they were sui generis, men of their own kind. People of this special nature tend to draw the currents of history into themselves in contrast to institutionally-manufactured leaders who must often be forced upon the historical record by professional scholars and politicians.

The “flexible” factor ultimately speaks to a greater characteristic that Brown and Malcolm X share with a small, select group of human beings in the larger story of humanity. People like John Brown and Malcolm X are not voted, promoted, or produced by democratic processes or leadership training programs. They seldom conform to any one mold, and while they have their own personal, individual characteristics shared in common with others, “the sum of their parts” is always greater than the whole of the leader produced by prejudice, profit, and propaganda. John Brown and Malcolm X are not just representative figures in their times and theaters of activism, but they have an expanding historical power that goes beyond their respective communities and peoples, reaching across boundaries of nation, ideology, religion, and culture. Above all, John Brown and Malcolm X walked the path which first trailed along the human concourse of struggle, then mounted upward on the bloody scaffold and stage, only to extend along a mysterious trajectory reaching the hearts and minds of men and women across time and place. It is for this reason that such phrases as “John Brown’s Soul Goes Marching On” and “Malcolm X Speaks” continue to resonate across the globe. John Brown yet marches on and Malcolm X is speaking still. These are not merely historical similarities, but ongoing spiritual parallels that remain vibrant because they bear witness to the sovereign purpose of the Almighty, Who moved both men from the margins of man’s world to the center of divine purpose in history.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

John Brown Among 4 Named to National Abolition Hall of Fame

(Peterboro, N.Y.) AP -- He was hanged for leading a raid on a federal arsenal nearly 150 years ago. Later this year, John Brown will be inducted into the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

The organization was established in 2005 to pay tribute to historical figures who worked to end slavery in the United States. The inaugural inductees include Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

The second class of inductees was announced Wednesday in the Madison County hamlet of Peterboro, about 20 miles east of Syracuse. Organizers of the Abolition Hall of Fame hope to create a museum in Peterboro to honor people who fought against slavery.

Upstate New York was a key link in the Underground Railroad used by escaped slaves to reach Canada in the years before and during the Civil War.

John Brown led the raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859. He's buried just outside Lake Placid. This year's class of inductees also includes Sojourner Truth, Lydia Maria Child, and Wendell Phillips.

Induction ceremonies will be held October 20 at Colgate University in Madison County. ©2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.