"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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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.



ripuree said...

Your article failed to mention that both Brown and Malcolm are Taureans. Compare their actions to Presidents Grant and Truman (2 of the 4 Taurean Presidents of the U.S.) Then add Dr. King (a Capricorn), as well as Mother Theresa a Virgo plus many of the other well known names who sacrificed their lives for the benefit of all humans; and it seems that most often, those who sacrifice the most for the benefit of the whole are mother "Earth" signs. With the "Water" signs of Cancer and Pieces coming in close behind.

Some day soon (for the benefit of those who'll continue to seek to work for the betterment of humanity) I hope it will be realized that humans who usually display the strongest commitment to uplift all of humanity, are generally weak in the ability to put themselves first and foremost; therefore they must strengthen that quality before anything else.

Because, as is evident, while the whole black race, benefited from the unselfish commitment of Brown, Malcolm, Dr. King, Harriet Tubman etc, in all of those cases (except Dr. King) those leaders died leaving their loved ones in severe financial and social stress.

John Brown's wife and remaining children were probably scorned and ostracized by other whites, while many blacks were afraid, or unable to give them adequate help. And today Malcolm X's children are still entangled in a degree of dysfunction, that one can see could be due to the fact that while he was focused on the betterment of the masses, his personal nurturing his children were denied.

From time immemorial there have been humans whose nature compelled them to work for the betterment of the whole, while others single-mindedly focused on personal good. The latter (dominant Me Oriented) are usually the biggest beneficiaries of the selfless actions of the former (You Oriented). But while historians will praise the great good spearheaded by the You Oriented, they'll still highlight that the You Oriented failed to accumulate wealth and security as others; as that's a social flaw.

In conclusion, what should be most important when trying to analyze humans like John Brown and Malcolm X, is the realization that there are Me and You Oriented humans, who remain so to the end of their lives. Dominant Mes will forever single-mindedly focus on Me and Mine, therefore will gain financial success and respect of others much quicker. Such Me Oriented personalities existed on Southern Plantations as the slaves who would report the plots of others, to free all. They existed when Nazis terrorized Jews, in the form of Jews who revealed the identity of fellow Jews, thus endangering many; to save the smaller amount of "Me and Mine". They exist in every outbreak of "crimes against humanity", and their selfishness will continue to empower and maintain oppression and evil. But which can be easily stopped when the You Oriented stop focusing so much on the needs of others, while their own needs go unmet.

You Oriented persons are still: reincarnating in different generations. Getting killed trying to uplift humanity. Yet their mission remain unfulfilled, their loved ones left destitute, or at least not having enough to comfortably withstand the assault and backlash which will come about for sure.

And Me Oriented survivors who were maintaining "tunnel vision" focus (while others risked their lives for all) often take up from where the You Oriented left off, but with their natural Me Oriented mindset, will most likely corrupt the message and methods, they will not grasp. Like today's Mega Moneyvangilists/Preachers corrupting the message of unconditional brotherly love that their actions can't demonstrate. Consequently the more things change it seems, the more they remain the same: era after era, generation after generation.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. said...

Ripuree: Thank you for your extensive response. With all due respect, I suppose I failed to mention the astrological identifications of Brown and Malcolm because I do not share your beliefs and place no store upon it personally.
As to the dynamics of you- vs. me-oriented people, that's thoughtful and I agree that it seems because this is endemic to the human condition, it will continue in every age and in every context of oppression. Once more, depending on our presuppositions, we might have different explanations for it. Blunt Darwinians might argue there is nothing morally wrong with the me-orientation, since it is about the preservation of the strongest of the species, and it is the me-oriented types that survive, while the you-oriented people end up dying. Of course, I abhor that view because it is amoral and perverse (in my opinion). I think most people would agree that the you-oriented people represent a breed of humanity who actually mark the upside of human existence, and whose lives often serve to better human experience. On the other hand, as you aptly observe, many times the you-oriented do not pay the ultimate price alone. Their families and dependents also suffer.
In a sense, however, both Brown and Malcolm provided for their families directly and indirectly. Malcolm's autobiography (which he worked on) as well as his posthumously published speeches provided resources that should not be overlooked. Dr. Betty Shabazz had to work hard to rear her daughters alone and complete her graduate education, but she did have a moral and community basis of support upon which to build. Nor did the family of Malcolm X have to walk in shadows, shame, and contempt, but in fact were able to see Malcolm's legacy only grow in a matter of decades.
Mary Brown was provided for by her husband, who raised sufficient funds to buy his land/house, so that he at least left his family with a roof over their heads and basic (agrarian) resources. However, Mary also received significant funds from James Redpath's 1860 authorized biography, and must have done fairly well enough to enlarge the house before deciding to move west during the Civil War. Black people also made donations over the years, well into the early 20th century in some cases, and that included the Haitian people too. This never made them rich, but their father's sacrifice was not without some "balm."
On the other hand, unlike Malcolm's family, which never had to apologize for being his family, the Browns had to literally and figuratively run for their lives from whites, and in subsequent generations his descendents resorted to denying their relation to him. We know too that Mary Brown and the entire family agreed with and supported her husband's martyrdom, just as she supported his activism.
Respectfully speaking, I wish that Dr. Betty Shabazz had been kinder to me in my graduate school days by granting me an interview, instead of being so elusive and difficult to reach (even despite appeals through her colleague). If she had, I might be able to address this side of things a bit more. But the question arises as to how she saw her husband's death--that is, how she weighed the meaning of his death as a champion of the oppressed over against his homicide at the hands of treacherous, malicious former brethren. For the Browns, it was very clear who killed their father and why. For Malcolm's family, there are multiple agendas at work, so his death is at once both sacrificial and needless with respect to his monumental life and service.

"There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it, and constructed large siege works against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man."
Ecclesiastes 9: 14-15

CollegeStudent said...


I know that this is an old article, but I wanted to say that your two books on Malcolm X and John Brown have helped me so much in writing my paper. I am writing the paper on the comparisons between John Brown and Malcolm X, and how they fit into radical activism concerning black American rights at large.

I'm excited to see that you also think there are parallels between them!

I'm very grateful that you wrote those books. You are a well-researched author. Thank you.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Thank you for writing and for your kind words, CollegeStudent:

I do try. Perhaps you'll share your conclusions with me after your paper is completed and graded.

Regards, LD