History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Civil Rights Pioneer Vernon Johns on John Brown the Abolitionist1

Historian Ralph E. Luker has devoted his scholarly energies in recent years to preparing a critical edition of the essays, sermons, and speeches of Civil Rights leader Vernon Johns. As Luker observes, many people do not even know about Johns' pioneer role in the modern Civil Rights movement, although he was, in Luker's words, "a legendary figure in the circle of Martin Luther King and the others at his Southern Christian Leadership Conference." Johns preceded Martin Luther King Jr. as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and mentored Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and a host of others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Facing a dearth of primary materials (Johns' papers were twice lost in fires), Luker, a distinguished and award-winning scholar, conducted "a massive search for whatever survived elsewhere in print, manuscript, and tape recordings," gathering an extensive amount of material over several years. Among the materials he recovered were two series of newspaper columns in black newspapers, especially in the Montgomery [Alabama] Advertiser.

One of Johns' published letters recovered by Luker related to a regular column written by Judge Walter B. Jones,2 a leading spirit in Alabama's racist government and a great enemy of the Civil Rights movement in his state. In the August 7, 1950 edition of the Advertiser, Judge Jones had published an article entitled, "Memories of John Brown." According to Luker, Jones opined that John Brown was "one of the ugliest characters in American history," who "hated slavery and he hated anybody who owned slaves." Citing Brown's role in the Pottawatomie killings of 1856 in Kansas and the raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, Jones firmly renounced the pro-Brown sentiments of leading writers after Brown's death, arguing that slavery in 1859 was yet sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution, having roots in most of the states, and that "thousands of the finest people in the country owned slaves."

The Reverend Johns, then the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, promptly prepared a rejoinder to this hostile attack on Brown, which Luker happily imagines as having been read over morning coffee by Montgomery's white population. He provides the response, written on August 8, as it appeared in print:

Editor, Montgomery Advertiser:

It is fortunate for John Brown's memory that Judge Walter Jones finished his article today on one of the "ugliest characters in American history" with an array of witnesses to his character on the other side. Emerson, Alcott, Longfellow, Greeley, Thoreau, with one foreigner of Victor Hugo's proportion, thrown in – should weigh pretty well on the other end; especially since the Judge's opinion is "off the bench."3

A little prophecy of Emerson's will aid us in an appraisal of John Brown's place in history. The morning after John Brown was hanged, Emerson entered in his Journal "The Emancipation of slaves is nearer by a hundred years." American slavery was 239 years old that morning. Two years later, an army was marching, composed of Northerners and Southerners to the strains of "John Brown's Body Lies A Mouldering in The Clay – His Soul Is Marching On." Six years later, the slave was free!

John Brown also made an amazing prophecy concerning his sacrifice. A hundred thugs had been hired at $1.00 each (with money raised by a New England minister) to overpower the few guards at Charlestown and release Brown. When a representative of the movement conferred with him, he listened to the proposal and answered: "If the doors of this jail were left open, and unguarded, I would not leave. I am more good to my cause by hanging now than any other way." The Judge's article makes much of John Brown's brutality in Kansas, where blood answered blood in a struggle to make new soil slave or keep it free. But how does the blood drawn for freedom by old Brown's cutlass bulk against the blood drawn by the lash through 24 decades to [make?] slavery what it was? And you could not put an end to slavery by sprinkling rose water on Simon Legree's whiskers.

Would it not be better for North and South – white and black – to accept the results of the Civil War as a finished fact and give our joint attention to this Korean [War] business? May we close now with sincere gratitude to Almighty God that "John Brown just hated slavery" and pray that all of us in this democracy, especially judges, may come to hate slavery and love freedom!

Vernon Johns, Minister
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

While Johns probably held a more admiring view of Brown, his response to the judge's column is deft and brilliant. After all, the pressing issue in 1950 was not a scholarly defense of Brown, but the struggle against de jure segregation and systemic racism in Alabama and the rest of the South--deeply rooted in the "Lost Cause" sympathies of political leaders like Judge Jones. The Reverend understood that to defend Brown would have been a waste of time; the real issue was that Southern white leaders were still mired in the racist commitments of the past--still upholding the perspective of the slaveholding elite that had driven the South to ruin by secession in 1861.

Johns assumes the apologetic of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hugo could not be easily overturned by Brown's detractors, and since Judge Jones himself had cited them in his polemic, Johns merely redirected the force of the blow back to Jones and his ilk: slavery had been overturned as Brown himself had predicted, and the chorus of his posthumous admirers merely underscored what was undeniable--by committing himself in life and death to the end of slavery, it was John Brown who achieved immortality, not the myriad thugs and oppressors who had invested their lives in the advancement of slavery.

Johns' further response to Judge Jones would well suit today's marginal defenders of the Confederacy, including that handful of contemptible Southern Calvinists who have tragically married the excellencies of Protestant Reformation theology to their tragic, romanticized devotion to the "Lost Cause." "You could not put an end to slavery by sprinkling rose water on Simon Legree's whiskers," Johns admonished. The fact of slavery's criminality, violence, and immorality cannot be denied, and anyone who criticizes Brown for "breaking the law," whether in 1859, 1959, or today is rationally obtuse and perhaps morally depraved, including the self-styled Southern Calvinist gentlemen who glorify pro-slavery theologians and Confederate generals.

It is clear that Judge Jones, like so many of his generation and--sadly--not a few today in this nation, did not love freedom and justice, but only his version of it, which placed white people at the human center and blacks and other people of color on the margins of secondary humanity. All such men and women have warped value systems and invariably react against John Brown precisely because he represented a position contrary to their idolatrous devotion to white supremacy.

As far as Judge Jones is concerned, let it be clear that this man was no friend of humanity, being an ally only to "white" people of his peculiar subculture. Besides his essential role in using his energies and talents to undermine the Civil Rights movement, Jones may also be remembered as editing a book of Confederate War Poems in 1959; it was Jones too who recovered the "True Gentlemen" creed of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity as having been written by John Wayland in a contest for the Baltimore Sun in 1899.4 That creed states that a "true gentleman's"
conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies; who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity, or any man of his inferiority or deformity; who is himself humbled if necessity compels him to humble another; who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power, or boast of his own possessions or achievements; who speaks with frankness but always with sincerity and sympathy; whose deed follows his word; who thinks of the rights and feelings of others, rather than his own; and who appears well in any company, a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.
Ironically, Judge Jones has done John Brown the abolitionist a good turn after all. By tracing and recovering this description of the "True Gentleman," Jones has provided history with an excellent commentary befitting John Brown, who was a true gentleman and the cream of 19th century Christian society. It was Brown, not his pro-slavery counterparts and their stubborn descendants, who represents the most humble, self-sacrificing, and virtuous character. Had Jones been able to clear the smut of prejudice and bigotry from his eyes, he might have seen Brown in a different light. Of course such prejudice is not a southern thing as it turns out. It is all too often typical of northern whites as well as southerners. John Brown did not hate the South, nor was he hateful of people who held slaves. He hated slavery and gave his life to end it. But many whites still hate Brown either out of ignorance or malice or both. The only realistic basis for this hatred--as the Rev. Vernon Johns recognized--is that such people also hate the divine principles of justice and equality.--LD

See Ralph E. Luker’s website at: http://www.ralphluker.com/vjohns/baptist.html


1Source: Ralph E. Luker, “Documenting Vernon Johns,” History News Network [George Mason University], October 4, 2005, an on-line source retrieved on April 28, 2007 from: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/16626.html

2Luker provides the following information on Walter B. Jones (1888-1963): son of Alabama Governor and United States District Judge, Thomas Goode Jones. Walter Jones served in Alabama's state legislature, on Montgomery's city commission and on Alabama's circuit bench for many decades before his death. He was a long-time columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser, a state commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and editor of the Alabama Bible Society Quarterly. As a special judge in 1954, Jones presided over the cleanup of corruption in Phenix City, Alabama, and became a close advisor to state Attorney General John Patterson. He suggested to Patterson that the state prosecute the NAACP for failing to register as an out-of-state corporation, presided at proceedings that shut down the NAACP in the state for eight years and presided over proceedings in the landmark case, Sullivan v. New York Times, that eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. In 1956, a dissident Democratic elector for Alabama cast one electoral vote for Walter B. Jones for President of the United States.

3Luker informs us that Jones' regular column was entitled "Off the Bench."

4See Jones, Walter Burgwyn, 1888-1963, from Grove's Library of Alabama Lives. Auburn University Libraries website, retrieved on Apr 28, 2007 from: http://www.lib.auburn.edu/madd/docs/ala_authors/j.html;

“Sigma Alpha Epsilon,” Wikipedia, retrieved on Apr 28, 2007 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigma_Alpha_Epsilon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

When Art Imitates Strife, Not Life

According to Dallas Morning News contributor Charles Dee Mitchell, the artist Barnaby Furnas "was probably that kid who sat at the back of the class in high school and drew pictures in his notebook when he should have been taking notes. And the pictures were gory." A 2000 graduate of Columbia University, Furnas has exhibited his work in galleries in New York and in Europe, but currently his work--including two John Brown themes--is being solo-exhibited at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

In an article published on April 24, Furnas is quoted as saying: "In a way, my painting has always been about rehearsing my fears. Making a picture of something can make you feel like you have power over it." Journalist Mitchell opines that what the artist fears most, "apparently, is annihilation, and he obsessively rehearses scenes of martyrdom and messy death. He usually applies the blood by squirting red paint onto the canvas with a syringe. It splashes and arcs across the surface, flowing from wounds and more often than not exploding from burst heads. Perfectly clear blue skies provide a sunny backdrop for the horror."

In one of the two Brown themes, the Subject "stands awaiting execution with a noose already around his neck. The almost stick-thin figure is in profile, but he turns his gaze directly at the viewer." The journalist continues--in error, as usual for journalists writing about Brown: "It's recorded that Brown delivered a two-hour speech before his hanging, [no, it's not recorded--Brown made no speech before his hanging] but in Mr. Furnas' image the speechmaking is over and the look on Brown's face conveys both resignation and anger. Along the bottom of the canvas upraised pistols send bullets flying into the air."

No sophisticated art critique here, folks. Personally I'm neither moved nor offended by this portrayal of Brown. However I much prefer the hanging as portrayed by Jacob Lawrence in his series called The Legend of John Brown.

Lawrence's rendering (No. 22) also portrays a slender figure, but instead of setting Brown against a dismal backdrop of guns and bullets, there is only the blue sky and clouds--no gallows, no people, as if the only thing that really mattered about Brown's death is the ultimate meaning of his martyrdom. Furnas' Brown has not yet fallen through the trap door. His head is turned toward the viewer revealing an expression not suited to the real John Brown's peaceful, yielded spirit at the time of his death. Rather we see an angry, doomed man about to die amidst an army of his foes. Brown did indeed hang before an audience of southern guardsmen, but no gun was fired nor voices raised except one southern officer who made the perverse, fallacious pronouncement that Brown was an "enemy of humanity." The figure in Furnas' painting seems an enemy, or at least victim--not martyr, which in its etymology means "witness." In contrast, Lawrence's figure of Brown hanged is the ultimate witness--a man of this world yet somehow transcendent; a man executed yet somehow redemptive in his death.--LD

To read an on-line article about the Furnas exhibit, go to:

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Better Book About John Brown
(A review of my latest by the leading John Brown documentarian and researcher, Jean Libby)

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.’s new John Brown, the Cost of Freedom; Reflections of his Life and Letters (International Publishers 2007) is a better book for scholars and researchers who have some background on the subject. Better yet for Americanists—scholars and teachers—who long for context in the stories of American leaders and events.

Brief historical context is what Lou DeCaro does best. Selecting letters from several periods and locations of Brown’s life, each chapter then tells that period story from the point of view of an author who is firmly on Brown’s side in all things, but understanding that he was a difficult person to organize and lead a mass movement. He was also frequently his own worst enemy.

This is not a hero-worship book and John Brown is not a cardboard figure. Instead, he is the edgy revolutionary seen in original art by John Hendrix on the cover—an emerging modern artist who has been commissioned to make a cover for a 2009 Lincoln commemoration book. Hendrix is one of Rev. Louis A. DeCaro’s former parishoners in his Evangelical ministry. Reverend DeCaro is the author of Fire From the Midst of You; a religious life of John Brown (New York University Press, 2002) and On the Side of My People; a religious life of Malcolm X ( NYU Press, 1997). John Brown, the Cost of Freedom is published by International Publishers of New York, who also publish the W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1909 biography of John Brown.

Among the periods of Brown’s life thoroughly covered in Cost of Freedom, the events of his business affairs from the tannery in Pennsylvania in the 1820s to the wool-producing partnership with Simon Perkins in Ohio which ended in 1855 are presented with much researchdetail and historical insight. We often hear the disparaging comment “Brown was a complete failure in business.” Lou DeCaro shows that he wasn’t, that he was an honest man bested by those who would cheat workers and buyers, but certainly not a Communist (the publishing house is the Marxist press). John Brown believed in the Jeffersonian ideal of small property ownership by the many in order to have an equal stake in society. He aided free black residents of Massachusetts and New York in obtaining legal title to property (which might be shared cooperatively in order to afford it) when laws were changing in the North to exclude them. This is exactly what his friend Augustus Wattles at Lane Seminary did in Ohio, for which the “radical” group who espoused land ownership without racial discrimination was expelled. This is exactly what his friend Joshua Giddings, the Ohio abolitionist Congressman, wanted for the liberated people as well. (Thank you, Mark Rathbun, for this critical information.)

When Lou DeCaro takes on the events of the Pottawatomie Massacre of May 1856 you can be sure that it is a well-researched examination, just as in his Fire From the Midst of You. The victims were not innocent. They had clearly made their intentions known that they would specifically kill the entire Brown family, which the author carefully documents. But they were murdered by Brown and his sons and son-in-law before they could do so, and that split his family forever. DeCaro has an interesting progession in which he demonstrates that Brown may have been telling his family in North Elba about the events “reading between the lines” of a letter home.

The most controversial part of Dr. DeCaro’s documentary narrative will be his assessment of responsibility for the failure of Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry in October 1859. In this assessment I am not an objective reviewer, but the provider of some of the research information that leads the author to the conclusion that his rift with Frederick Douglass was much larger than told by Douglass years later. Brown himself blamed Frederick Douglass for removing the free black leadership that he needed to succeed, because Douglass felt it was a bad plan to attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry rather than send small vanguard army units into the mountains to liberate and lead people from the plantations.

I agree with Lou DeCaro’s conclusions on the effect of Frederick Douglass’s withdrawal of support. Further, this is in keeping with the author’s previous focus on black nationalism through his work on Malcolm X. When I was a student in African American Studies at UC Berkeley in 1983, the late black playwright Erroll Hill came to lecture. I was just beginning my academic research on John Brown after being “grassroots” (as DeCaro compliments me) since 1976. Professor Hill compared Brown and Douglass to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. John Brown was Malcolm and Fred. Douglass was Martin.

However, DeCaro weakens his case of the yearlong and bitter argument between Brown and Douglass by falling prey to the current historical debunking of Harriet Tubman. Although he does not buy into the “she didn’t help very many people along the Underground Railroad, even her own parents” Lou does not analyze all the documentary evidence of letters from Brown about Tubman of April 1858. There are two important letters at Fisk University of Brown to William Howard Day in which he is looking for her with some desperation. And, Brown’s letter to his son John Brown, Jr., of April 8, 1858, saying that “he, Harriet, is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met…has hooked on his whole team at once.” This letter is on the microfilmed record from Ohio and in the Boyd Stutler Collection (the microfilm). 1 What is most difficult to understand is not only the omission of these letters in his documentary study—or at least reference to them—but publication of unsubstantiated speculation that Tubman may have been feigning illness for his discussion.

Lou can readily be forgiven this secondary lapse with his definitive work on the local enslaved African Americans support of Brown at the Harpers Ferry raid. He has found the necessary confirming documentary source, that of Massachusetts lieutenant Robert Morris Copeland in an interview of Antony Hunter, a local enslaved man from Shepherdstown who escaped to Union Army protection in August 1861. Copeland wrote “My Man Antony” in Putnam’s Magazine in April 1869. He states—unfortunately in the ill-mannered Ebonics written in Uncle Remus (Joel Chandler Harris) style—that Hunter was among a group of “hundreds” who gathered in the mountains of Jefferson County outside Harpers Ferry and Charles Town to be ready to be armed by Brown and continue South. DeCaro has taken the research and analysis of myself (Jean Libby) since 1979 and Hannah Geffert of Shepherd University (“John Brown and His Black Allies” in Prophets of Protest, Reconsidering the History of American Abolitionism, The New Press, 2006) and brought it together with logic and coherence and his own primary source discoveries in his chapter “The Raid Reconsidered.” I would recommend John Brown; the Cost of Freedom for obtaining the best information about the local support for Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859.

Lou DeCaro is generous with his attribution to other scholars. I agree with his correction of the time of the portrait of John Brown taken in 1856 in Hudson, Ohio, as December in a family migration from Kansas rather than a quick trip in the summer to pay respects to his half brother on the death of their father, Owen Brown, in May. But the daguerreotype did not stay in Ohio so that it became the model for an awful portrait painted by David Gue in 1915. The image used by the artist (the same David Gue who wrote to Secretary Floyd in 1859 warning him of the impending liberation) was that of the published biography by Oswald Garrison Villard. The daguerreotype was still in the hands of the Fairchild family in Boston when Villard had it reproduced in fine detail in 1910. Later it was donated to the Boston Atheneum, where it is today. Therefore, Brown took the daguerreotype with him from Hudson when he went to Boston to seek funds from abolitionists in early 1857. Sure makes more sense with the December date of the sitting in his ill-fitting suit and home haircut. BTW, it is this image which the forensic anthropologist Eileen Barrow (now head of the Anthropology Dept. at LSU) thought could possibly be a different person. That is primarily because of the hairline, which is deliberately obscured, and because the ears appear somewhat different. However, all the photo portraits which I sent to Dr. Barrow were found to be of the same person, including this one. DeCaro’s suggestion that Brown’s beard was grown as a cover for the effects of mild stroke as much as “disguise” is well-taken.

“Isn’t it great that there are four good biographies about John Brown in the last four years!” quoting Kirke Mecham, composer of a John Brown opera that will premiere in Kansas City in 2008. All four are offered on Internet Bookselling, “where you can find the good books about John Brown” that are sympathetic to the man and his liberation plans. John Brown, the Cost of Freedom by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. (International Publishers, 2007) is the best one.

Review by Jean Libby, editor
Allies for Freedom Publishers


1 This letter is recited in full by Professor Roy Thomas in Mean To Be Free; John Brown’s Black Nation Campaign by Jean Libby, author and photographer (UC Berkeley TV and Radio Studio, 1986, reissued as a DVD by Allies for Freedom, 2005.)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Santa Fe Trail: The Film that Skewed John Brown for the 20th Century

As historians, we wish that "history" would be defined by scholarly writings in the popular mind. This is usually not the case. For the masses of people, fictional stories and cinema are far more important than scholarly research and writing. While scholarship has a great impact on scholars, most people are primarily interested in the latest fiction, and even when history is involved, they are more interested in a fictional take on the historical. As John Brown the abolitionist is concerned, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (1998), a "work of imagination" about Brown, had far more readers and far more interest from the media than any published biography of Brown to date, even the prominently reviewed biography of my associate, David Reynolds. While Banks is a masterful writer, it is interesting that many if not most people seem intent on informing themselves about Brown according to the novelist, not the historian. In "John Brown's Holy War," the tragically distorted PBS documentary about Brown that was first broadcast in 2000, it is interesting that both Banks and Bruce Olds, who shamefully pimped and slurred Brown in his 1995 novel, were included as "talking heads."

In keeping with this unfortunate dynamic, we should not forget the impact that the 1940 film, Santa Fe Trail, made upon the public mind with regard to John Brown the abolitionist. With an all-star cast (including Ronald Reagan, the best friend of Bonzo the monkey), Santa Fe Trail provided the U.S. public its first cinematic portrayal of Brown, based upon a screenplay by Robert Buckner, who was sympathetic to the slave South in his outlook. As Malcolm X said in retrospect--undoubtedly speaking of this film--Santa Fe Trail made Brown look like a "nut." Although Raymond Massey, starring as Brown, made a valiant effort in his portrayal (he portrayed Brown again in another film in the 1950s that was far more sympathetic, but far less paradigmatic), the substance of the story was malignant. Telling the story of Brown's public career through the eyes of Westpoint heros--later Confederate traitors to the Union and warriors in defense of black enslavement--Santa Fe Trail makes Brown look like a dangerous and delusional fanatic, disdained and feared even by his own son. Although there is a sympathetic moment on the gallows for Brown, the movie reeks with white racist pathology and does more than the normal abuse of historical fact that we expect in cinematic attempts at history-telling.

Santa Fe Trail is a cinematic monstrosity that glorifies the ethical and moral "bad guys" of history and demonizes the man who represented one of the few militant exceptions to white supremacy in the U.S. As a matter of record, one of Brown's descendants at the time tried to sue the production company for slandering and misrepresenting her famous forebear, but a federal judge dismissed her case (of course, "freedom of speech" and "artistic freedom" are the gods of the west; they are more important than truth or piety). Santa Fe Trail went on to misinform two generations about John Brown and has done so with such unfortunate success that it will probably take another movie of equal popularity to strangle its roots in the psychic soil of the "American mind"--particularly among the masses of whites who continue to believe that slavery was not as bad as we make it out to have been, and who show a greater lamentation over the deaths of five immoral and dangerous whites in Kansas at Brown's hand than they do the myriad crimes committed against blacks and other people of color at the hands of their great white heroes like slaveholding and Indian-killing Andrew Jackson, or hypocritical and self-conflicted Negrophobes like Thomas Jefferson. That these fools and rogues are on "our" money is a fair testimony to the dynamics behind the demonization of Brown.

Whatever the case, you can watch Santa Fe Trail for yourself on line. It is now featured on the Classic Radio and Movies Network, where you can view it or even download it. Go to:

Remember: Santa Fe Trail is not history. It is "a work of imagination"--the imagination of white supremacy.--LD

Saturday, April 21, 2007

John Brown in China,
Staffordshire China, That Is

John Brown the abolitionist was much admired abroad by the anti-slavery community, and during the Civil War years his popularity was not only booming in the U.S.A., but in Great Britain especially. Apart from literary and oratory tributes, Brown was also a marketable theme in pictures and figurines, as witnessed by this rare survivor from the 19th century, a Staffordshire china figurine made in that region of England ca. 1860-65. A number of ceramic pieces based on Brown were manufactured there after his famous execution in 1859, and these items were produced for domestic sale and export to the U.S. This large figurine, 13 ½ inches in height, survived the years and found its way to the Heritage Galleries auction house in 2005, and has no doubt found a home with some happy collector by now. HG noted that this "is one of the more impressive – and scarce – varieties."

In life John Brown visited England in 1849 in conjunction with his business activities as representative of the wool commission operation of Perkins & Brown, of which he was a partner with Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio. Brown was particularly intent on finding foreign markets for wools grown in Ohio, western Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other states because the wool growers were under the heavy foot of New England manufacturers. Brown's failures in the wool commission business are famously misrepresented by popular narratives, although my research shows that most of the shipwreck of Perkins & Brown can be attributed to external and circumstantial issues. More research is needed about John Brown's time abroad, but it is clear that he made no effort to associate with England's abolitionists (not surprising since he made no effort to associate with New England's abolitionist leadership either) during his time abroad.

As to the theme of the china figurine, the artisan's design is no doubt apropos of the newspaper coverage of Brown at the time of his death. He is flanked by two young black children, one whom he supports with his hand, the other reaching up to hold his other hand. It was Brown's stated wish at the time of his execution that he receive no ceremony or prayers from pro-slavery preachers, but only an escort comprised of the enslaved--an old mother and barefoot children. This figurine captures something of Brown's sentiments and reminds us of the fine statue of Brown at the Brown Farm in Lake Placid, New York, where he is pictured walking with a black youth. Of course these images are quite authentic, not only to Brown's sentiments, but to the life he lived. Having lived and interacted extensively with black people in their homes and churches, there were many occasions when the scene portrayed by this china figurine might just as well have been based on a real John Brown incident.--LD

For fresh, cutting-edge work on John Brown as both businessman and abolitionist, see my latest book, John Brown--the Cost of Freedom.

Friday, April 20, 2007

TRUMPET of HISTORY: Norman Marshall, Portrayer of John Brown

A few years ago I was privileged to become acquainted with Mr. Norman Marshall, a veteran actor from stage and screen who has fairly well dedicated his life to portraying John Brown on stage in his one-man play, John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom. I have seen the play several times and have come to enjoy Mr. Marshall's friendship and camaraderie. He is an artist and intellectual and his passion for Brown is authentic and deeply-rooted. A descendant of slavemasters and klansmen, Norman is perhaps the quintessential "race traitor"--a so-called white southerner from Virginia (the state that murdered John Brown), armed-to-the-teeth with a larger-than-life wit and wisdom which he well uses in his own struggle against injustice, and in an unabashed defense of the most misunderstood and misrepresented human rights activist of the modern era.

Historians and biographers are often frustrated by artistic portrayals of their scholarly themes. Art is not bound to the rules of scholarship, to be sure, and the artist does not play the same role as the historian, although their work may overlap. Yet some art is better history than some history, especially when it comes to John Brown the abolitionist. Certainly Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter is not only a qualitatively better portrayal of Brown than is Bruce Olds' fictive monstrosity in Raising Holy Hell, but Cloudsplitter is probably a fairer portrayal than the historical renderings of historians like Robert Penn Warren and (the malignant) Otto Scott. The same salutation can be made of John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom, a play by Marshall and his colleague, George Wolf Reily. I would advise everyone to see this play because the spirit of the work is true to the story of John Brown the man who lived and died for human rights. Of course I would also advise people to engage the historical record too, which will only enhance an appreciation for the fine performance and dramatic rendering of the playwrights. Marshall makes no claim to being a historian, but he exhibits a deep respect for the record and does not abuse the story in the name of artistic freedom, as does Bruce Olds, who uses his fine talents to the detriment of truth.

Recently we have received an open letter from Mr. Marshall, most of which I have excerpted below. I am posting it here, along with the supportive remarks of our friendly colleague, David Reynolds, a prominent John Brown biographer in his own right. My hope is that you, the reader, will respond to the trumpet call of history. Use your influence to bring John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom to your club, house of worship, or campus. Like Old Brown himself, Marshall will travel wherever the call leads him and make magic in even the humblest of settings. He will also give just as true a performance for a small audience as for a large audience.

Rev. Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D.
John Brown Biographer and Scholar
If you are interested in learning more about Norman Marshall and John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom, see his website at: http://www.wbworks.com/johnbrown/index.html

[An Open Letter from Norman Marshall, Portrayer of John Brown the Abolitionist]

Dear Friends,
I have now been performing JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM for eleven years. John Brown has taken me to places and introduced me to people that a this old actor would have no hope of ever encountering. Every one of the hundreds of performances that I have given has been a pure joy for me. It is a privilege to have spent these years representing the spirit and body of John Brown.
When George Reily and I first decided to create this play, the assumption was that it would simply be another line on our resumes. The play would have its typically brief run and we would move on to other worlds to conquer. But along the way, the spirit of the Old Man asserted itself. His ideals and his example gripped my spirit so profoundly that I could not turn it loose. This play showed itself to be a complete marriage of the artistic, the spiritual and the political. There can be no higher calling than to dynamically present the essence of that which John Brown has to teach.
So, JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM has become a ministry for me . I will continue performing it as long as I have breath in my body and the strength to walk, crawl or be carried onto the stage. I will soon observe (certainly not celebrate) my sixty-eighth birthday. And even though I seem to be in perfect health and have the same vigor and strength that I had thirty years ago, I realize that the clock and the calendar will at some point, exact its tribute.
Until that time comes, I am eager to bring JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM to as many as humanly possible. In this regard, I ask your help.
For all the years that I have done this play, I have spent thousands of hours phoning and e-mailing potential bookers. The great, great majority of these have been cold calls. Evaluating this, I conclude that cold calling is almost a complete waste of effort. Ninety-nine point nine percent of cold calling has yielded nothing. In almost every case, bookings have resulted from folks who have seen the performance and recommended it to someone who was in a position to present it. Your response to this appeal can make a critical difference in getting this play to so many who can reap its benefits.
It can be done in a wide variety of venues. A theatre is not required. It has been performed in class rooms, lecture halls, churches, libraries, coffee houses, apartments, back yards and parks. I am particularly eager to do fund raisers for organizations that pursue justice for the poor and despised in the spirit of John Brown.
I ask all friends of John Brown to don their thinking caps at the jauntiest possible angle and think of people and circumstances that could facilitate presenting JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM.
We can lift up the memory and contribution of John Brown to a new exalted height that has heretofore been denied. We are living in a time when a new generation of historians is correcting the record concerning Brown. Let's all join that effort.
All the best.
Norman Marshall

P.S. Take a look at the JOHN BROWN/ JIM CROW: AMERICAN PARADOX page on the web site. It is a documentary on the genesis of the play, JOHN BROWN:TRUMPET OF FREEDOM.

"When performing, Norman Marshall is John Brown. He embodies all of the Puritan warrior’s characteristics: his passion, his toughness, his piety, and, above all, his uncompromising commitment to human rights. Marshall does not shrink from portraying Brown’s violence. To the contrary, he gives a chilling rendition of the Pottawatomie slayings. But he wisely places this violence in the context of pro-slavery atrocities and of John Brown’s accurate view of slavery as a state of war against an entire race. In depicting Brown, Marshall creates ongoing dialogues by skillfully impersonating a range of characters, from Frederick Douglass through the Virginia's governor Henry A. Wise, who talked with Brown. In doing so, Marshall conjures up John Brown’s whole world. Both on video and in person, Norman Marshall powerfully recreates the life and times of the man whose courageous war against slavery helped trigger the war that emancipated four million enslaved blacks."

--David S. Reynolds, author of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

MARTIN, QUENTIN, and JOHN: Should Filmmakers Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino do John Brown movies?

A couple of years ago the word was out that Martin Scorsese had purchased the rights to make Cloudsplitter, the award-winning novel about John Brown by Russell Banks, into a movie. At some point it was reported that Raoul Peck, who directed the HBO bio-pic on the great Patrice Lamumba, was going to be working with Scorsese to produce his John Brown film. Since then, apparently, that project has not moved forward.

Frankly, the idea of Martin Scorsese doing a film about John Brown raised great concern in serious JB circles. Would Martin reduce the John Brown story to a sensational blood-fest like Gangs of New York? We have been resting uneasily about this possibility for a while now, but as of last week we have another reason for contemplation and concern.

On April 5, 2007, Quentin Tarantino was interviewed with fellow filmmaker Richard Rodriguez on the popular PBS program, The Charlie Rose Show. Toward the end of the program, Rose asked Tarantino about his future film ideas and--to our shock--he declared his desire to do a film about our man Brown. Here is an excerpted transcript from that interview:

QT: I would one of these days love to do the John Brown story, he's one of my biggest heroes of all time; and I'd actually like to play John Brown because I think I kind of look like him a little bit. But I'm actually thinking that may be the last movie I'll ever make--I'll be 59 or 60, I'll look the right age, I'll be the right age. And so, that's like an Unforgiven thing--

CR: Why is he such a hero?

QT: Because he pretty much ended slavery all by himself. And like all great patriots, was tried for treason [laughter]. I mean he's the only white man that's ever earned a spot on black history calendars, alright, and there looking you in the eye. Nobody saw slavery the way he saw it, and "if we have to start killing people to stop this then they're going to know what time it is." I just love him. He's just my favorite American.

To his credit, of course, Tarantino expresses a very positive view of Brown, something that we desire in any filmmaker who takes on the John Brown story. Hollywood has long produced films about Brown (or including him) that always made him look like a madman and villain. If Tarantino sees Brown as a hero, perhaps we will finally have a popular conception of John Brown promoted--one which does not conform to the older, biased, negative images that have prevailed throughout the 20th century. Admittedly, Tarantino is not a historian, so his inaccurate remarks about Brown may be forgiven; but if he portrays Brown both as a caring human and humanitarian, we might finally get closer to the John Brown who lived.

On the other hand, Tarantino's films are controversial for their violence and vulgarity, and in some respects it seems unfortunate that he would take up the John Brown story when his portrayed values seem so remote from the biblical values for which Brown lived and died. Of course there is fighting and violence in Brown's story; but our hope is that this violence is contextualized and explained, and not simply processed in a Kill Bill or Grindhouse manner of sensationalism.

We live in a society where artistic freedom has become the sacrosanct religious tenet that excuses all manner of vulgarity, profanity, and depravity expressed in the name of art. The artist's right to produce perversion and garbage in the name of artistic freedom is held higher than the rights of religious people to express their beliefs in the public square. Obviously, no one can tell Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese NOT to make John Brown movies. Nor can anyone tell them HOW to make their movies. However we certainly hope that these filmmakers will try to understand John Brown the man who lived--not only his willingness to use violence if necessary, but also his deeply religious and God-centered world view, his strong family roots, his great personal piety, and his deep hatred of injustice.