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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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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kick Off of Harper's Ferry Raid Sesquicentennial

May 25, 2009- Harpers Ferry National Historical Park kicks off the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with the re-enactment of a historic speech about John Brown.

Brown staged an 1859 raid on a Union arsenal, in hopes of starting a guerrilla war on slavery. But the raid failed and Brown was hanged for treason and murder.

On May 30, actor Fred Morsell will recreate a speech that escaped slave and fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass later gave about the raid's impact.

Douglass said it proved the time for compromise was gone, and only a clash of arms would resolve whether the institution of slavery would survive.

The speech is the first in a series of events commemorating Brown's raid from now through December.

The anniversary of the raid is October 16.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Ron Jacobs. The Legacy of John Brown: His Terrible Swift Sword*

On the New York side of Lake Champlain sits the little town of North Elba. Outside of the town is the homestead of American anti-racist revolutionary John Brown. When I lived in Vermont, I made a trip across the lake one May Day to commemorate the man whose actions against slavery did more than all the words written to force the US to end that diabolical practice. The homestead is a National Historic Landmark now, yet in his heyday Brown was reviled by many of his countrymen, north and south. He was admired and respected by many others. For those few that might be unaware, John Brown's raid on the Federal Armory in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia was the spark that lit the raging inferno that became the United States Civil War. If the Civil War is the defining moment in the history of the United States and the historical moment that virtually every major domestic political moment since then hearkens back to, then the Harper's Ferry raid is that history's moment of apocalyptic creation. The raid itself failed due to miscommunication and misplaced hopes, but its place in history stands with the battles at Lexington and Concord that began the American colonists' war for independence from England.

Naturally, volumes have been written about John Brown, his life, dreams, anti-slavery escapades and the culmination of it all--the raid on Harper's Ferry, his trial and execution for treason. From WEB DuBois' biography to the fictionalized tome titled Cloudsplitter by US author Russel Banks, the number of words written about Brown rival those written about the man that history knighted to carry the war against slavery to its ultimate end, Abraham Lincoln. One of the best of these works is the recently republished The Old Man: John Brown at Harper's Ferry by Truman Nelson. First published in 1973, when elements in the New Left had taken on Brown's mantle in their attempt to end US imperialism and racism by setting off bombs in buildings and black liberation fighters were being hunted down by the federal government and its allied forces, Nelson's work focuses solely on the raid in Harper's Ferry and its aftermath.

It is a riveting story told in a captivating narrative that takes the reader into that small town in the West Virginia mountains. The physical details are here--the planning, recruiting, purchase and smuggling of arms, and the training. So is a discussion of the political philosophy behind Brown's endeavor. It is a simple philosophy and one still worth striving for--a nation without slavery and with equal opportunity and choice for all.

The Old Man describes a nation splitting apart. Anti-slavery legislators attacked in Congress by men whose very lives are bound to the practice of the bondage of other humans. Men who would never consider breaking a law tired of waiting for the political system to end slavery deciding to fund Brown's insurrection. The Christian churches split between those who would use the Bible to justify slavery and those whose interpretation forces them to conclude that enslaving other humans is the work of Satan. Financial interests looking after their own interests who care little about the morals of slavery but only about the money that can be made by supporting it or ridding the nation of it.

Through it all, John Brown's terrible swift sword remained true. He saw slavery as the abomination it was and understood the northern capitalists who did not align themselves with the abolitionists to be the opportunists they were. His vision of a post-slavery United States did not see the black man or woman as a lesser being but as a genuine equal. This was something that was even beyond the thought process of many abolitionists. Yet, it mattered not to Brown. Some called this madness, yet it was merely the single mindedness of a man with a just mission. Compromise rarely extended to Brown's approach and never to his principles. Nelson tells us that he was not unreasonable, just certain of his reason for being on earth.

The raid on Harper's Ferry was to be the first salvo in the fight to free the slaves. Indeed, in a harbinger of the coming War Between the States, it was future Confederate General Robert E. Lee whose unit was sent to quell the Harper's Ferry insurrection. Despite the arrest of Brown and most of his co-conspirators and their hanging, that raid served its purpose. The foul institution of slavery was wiped from the United States. We continue to deal with its legacy. As the recent refusal by a federal appeals court in Georgia to commute Troy Davis' death sentence and the ongoing mockery of justice known as the trial of the San Francisco 8 continues in California make clear, the bonds of slavery have been removed, but the forces that represent the slavers' legacy have not disappeared. As for the meaning of John Brown's armed attempt to free slaves in Harper's Ferry, it continues to prove its meaning to the oppressed in the United States.

Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs' essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch's collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

*Source: CounterPunch (May 22-24, 2009 weekend edition)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Josh Brolin as John Brown?

Er, well, maybe. Josh Brolin is a fine actor, but he just wouldn't be one of the actors that I would readily think of playing our man Brown in a film. But if Brolin is willing and able to portray Brown, my greater concern is that he will portray him fairly--and I think he will. As noted below, Brolin read some of Brown's words in a kind of history-meets-drama program produced by historian Howard Zinn (Brolin's reading/performance is featured on YouTube), and I think Brolin would give us a healthy and balanced representation compared to what Hollywood has previously produced.

As to the details of Brolin's possible role as the controversial abolitionist, according to a contributor to the entertainment website, ComingSoon.net, Josh Brolin was interviewed on Tuesday, May 19, in New Orleans, La., on the set of Warner Brothers production entitled, Jonah Hex. In the interview Brolin revealed that he is considering the production and starring role in a biopic on John Brown from a script by Mark Gordon. The report continues:
"It's a great, great project," Brolin told us. "The script was already out there; I read the script, I loved it. It would be a very tough character for me to play. We're going to do some tests once I'm done with this, but it's a great script and story. Somebody who I know, because of Howard Zinn's thing, and I know the character really well. Mark Gordon and I had a conversation, and we said, 'Let's do this, let's get this done.' People have been wanting to do it forever and there's a lot of directors who'd love to be involved, so I think now's the time."
The "Howard Zinn thing" Brolin mentions is the documentary he's producing called The People Speak, based on Howard Zinn's book A People's History of the United States, which will feature a who's who of American actors including Matt Damon, Marisa Tomei, Sean Penn, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle and many more enacting some of the greatest speeches in American history.*
Pardon me for saying so, Mr. Brolin, but if you're going to portray John Brown, I hope you'll pick up my book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom first. If you want to know the man who lived, it's a good place to start.

*Source: Edward Douglas, Coming Soon.net, May 20, 2009

P.S. 21 May 09. A reader has kindly responded by inquiring as to my preference in the lead role of a movie about John Brown. First, let me say that I would not want to disparage Mr. Brolin because I think his performance would be excellent and I think his thinking on Brown is at least fair. Secondly, as a mere movie-watcher my suggestions as to who might play John Brown would be (in no particular priority): Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepherd, William Sadler, Robert Patrick, Christopher Walken or Chris Cooper. Of course, as theater goes, my vote goes for my friend, Norman Marshall, who's been keeping Brown alive on stage now for years.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist and author sets his sites on John Brown
[Excerpted from The Dallas Morning News, May 12, 2009]. Tony Horowitz, an investigative journalist for The Wall Street Journal and author of Confederate in the Attic and other books, is setting his sites on John Brown. According to Joy Tipping of The Morning News, Horowitz has "turned to book-length nonfiction, but his bent for digging beneath the surface has never waned. Now, though, his eyes are trained mostly on the rearview mirror. . . . Horwitz will return to the Civil War for his next book, which will focus on abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, W.Va., in 1859. "I'm not sure if that one will be as funny" as his previous books, Horwitz says. "John Brown's not a ha-ha type of figure. "But sometimes you have to lure people into history. A lot of people just see it as homework. So I'll try to make it as lively and amusing as possible. They get their dessert first, and then you make them eat their peas."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rebecca Hill's Men, Mobs, and Law features John Brown

Rebecca Hill, author of a new book entitled, Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History [Duke University Press], appeared on the radio talk show, "Law and Disorder" on May 11. According to the "Law and Disorder" website, Hill's book discusses "the complexities of protest movements, race, class and gender. . . . Hill draws comparisons in two types of left protest campaigns, those that defend labor organizers from prosecution and the anti-lynching groups that seek to memorialize lynching victims. Hill says, both groups have influenced each other throughout history and she specifically connects the narratives and stories of the NAACP’s anti lynching work to the IWW’s labor defense campaigns."

Below I have provided a pictorialized excerpt from Rebecca's audio interview. However, check out "Law and Disorder's" official website and listen to the entire interview!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The John Brown Year--and W.E.B. DuBois too!

All around the country there is talk about John Brown the abolitionist. In case you haven't been paying attention, 2009 is the sesquicentennial year of the Harper's Ferry raid and Brown's hanging in Virginia. Yesterday marked John Brown's 209th birthday and there have already been events taking place from coast to coast, most recently a weekend celebration in Lake Placid, N.Y., the site of Brown's burial. Last weekend, yours truly participated in a symposium in beautiful Hudson, Ohio, sponsored by the Historical Society and Library in that community--which also happens to be the hometown of the abolitionist. In a symposium in which the discussants were given the choice of choosing either "hero" or "madman" in referring to Brown, biographer David Reynolds and I opted (in so many words) for "hero." Our colleague, Paul Finkelman, took a little more complicated stance, arguing on behalf of Brown from a political standpoint, but essentially diminishing Brown as an individual, including the opinion that Brown "had to be a little nuts" to have undertaken the Harper's Ferry raid. I was quick to contradict my esteemed and brilliant fellow panelist because I do not see the Harper's Ferry raid as a quixotic adventure. As I pointed out, Brown made a careful study of both government armories then operated by the United States and he knew that Harper's Ferry had no military guard or supervision, and that it could be easily taken. Indeed, Brown had no difficulty taking the armory or the town. Had he gotten out of town far sooner, he could have pulled off a perfect coup. As Brown himself acknowledged, his delay proved lethal.

This weekend I was sad to miss the events held in lovely Lake Placid, in upstate New York, which in Brown's day was the town of North Elba. It was there that John Brown lived in a rented farm between 1849-51, before relocating to Akron, Ohio, to continue his partnership with the wealthy mogul, Simon Perkins Jr. After their partnership was dissolved (due to no fault of Brown's, but rather to Perkins's own financial failures) in 1854, Brown prepared to re-located to North Elba once again and had his trusted son-in-law, Henry Thompson, build a simple home--now restored and sustained as a New York State historic site, The John Brown Farm. Brown hardly had a chance to live in the house. In the spring of 1855, he went to the Kansas territory in response to an urgent appeal for weapons sent by his son John Brown Jr. That call, and Brown's response to it, pretty much ended his life as it was up to that point. Subsequently he would return home for short visits, but until the raid on Harper's Ferry, Brown traveled extensively, either fund-raising in the east, or eluding federal marshals, and escorting fugitives from Missouri across several states to escape to Canada, the "land of the free."

You can listen to an interesting radio broadcast by Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio (NCPR) about the event, which includes interviews with the brilliant novelist, Russell Banks and my friend, Martha Swan, of John Brown Lives! I have only a tiny bone to pick with Martha, in that she concludes (as do many people) that John Brown was a "complex" man. In my opinion as a biographer of the man, I do not think Brown was all that complex--at least he was no more complex than the rest of us. (The same has been said about Malcolm X, whom I had the privilege of studying in earlier years, and I likewise differ. Neither Malcolm nor John Brown are difficult to understand and they are entirely consistent and quite honest, notwithstanding the predictable self-editing that goes on whenever we engage in auto-biographical reflection.) The problem is not so much that Brown was complex, but rather than there are so many opinions and interpretations of him composed by so many people that trying to reach a consensus seems impossible. What makes him more complex is that academics in large part do not bring real light to Brown's life story; rather they complicate it with theories, multi-disciplinary interpretations, and any number of political "axes to grind." Then there is the contemporary disconnection between a largely secular academia and evangelical Christianity. Since most scholars do not understand the mind set or even respect the values of conservative Protestant Christianity, they tend to speculate (always more negatively than positively) concerning his religious life, or they concoct peculiar theories to present him more positively as a religious figure (as John Stauffer does in his study of Brown, Douglass, McCune Smith, and Gerrit Smith). Clearly Stephen Oates did not understand the mind and heart of evangelical Calvinism and yet many people consider his book definitive and the most fair.

John Brown was not a complex figure. He was a flawed hero, but there is no difficulty in understanding him once you grasp his life, faith, values, and family background. Contrary to what Dr. Finkelman and others believe, he did not "reinvent" himself in his Charles Town jail cell. To be sure, he fell back on the ultimate "victory" by embracing Christian martyrdom (and to Brown, his death was not simply political martyrdom, it was an expression of his Reformed faith). But both his willingness to die and his way of dying in Virginia were consistent with the life that he had lived up to that point. He did not see his failure merely as an opportunity to "reinvent" himself, but as the point at which God closed one door and opened another door--both doors (living for the slave vs. dying for the slave) being fundamental to his own sense of vocation throughout many years of life.

One last note: do not forget that 100 years ago this fall, William Edward Berghardt DuBois published his much-criticized biography of John Brown. DuBois was limited in resources and time and relied on many unreliable and problematic sources, so the book is pocked and scarred by detail errors. Yet the essence of the book is far more important and definitive insofar as DuBois presents the black community's understanding of Brown--an understanding that has long been far more true to the man than has "mainstream" (white) society's perception.

DuBois' book was sacked by Oswald Garrison Villard after its release. Villard, the grandson of pacifist William Lloyd Garrison, was preparing his own "definitive" work (published the following year) and could afford to pay someone to do his research. Villard owned the New York Evening Post and The Nation and he used his literary power to crush DuBois's effort and then refused to allow the black scholar to respond. Interestingly, a century later it is DuBois' biography that is the most reprinted and read. Scholars use Villard's book for its framework and documentation, but his narrative is dry, his tone condescending, and his treatment of Brown hardly as "objective" as he claimed. DuBois himself liked his biography of Brown among all his works--perhaps because he had connected with what Malcolm X once called "the black secret soul." John Brown is one of a few so-called white people in U.S. history that connected to blacks at a level of intimacy and understanding, to the point that he is far more "owned" by African Americans than he his by his own "white" community, including most of his descendants and extended family members.

Looking back at the year of Harper's Ferry, abolitionists in 1860 considered it as having been the John Brown year. It was simply impossible for them to think of 1859 without thinking of the Old Man at Harper's Ferry. One-hundred-and-fifty-nine years later, we are in the midst of another John Brown year as people from across the nation reflect upon John Brown life, death, and legacy. John Brown's soul is still marching on.