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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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Friday, May 11, 2012

Birthday Remembrance--
The Legacy of John Brown Recalled*

“If it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood with the millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.”--John Brown, before his execution 
“ [Brown’s legacy is that] the cost of liberty is less than the price of oppression." --W.E.B. Du Bois
Whether free or enslaved, what would you have done to end slavery? 

It’s not an easy question to answer.  But for one free white man in the mid 1800’s, the answer was to sacrifice his life in an attempt to spark an uprising of enslaved black Americans.  Today is his birthday, and his story brings up salient questions about privilege, race, violence, and injustice that are relevant today more than ever.

On October 16, 1859, John Brown and a cadre of 21 men stormed the armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  Their goal was to gather weapons, liberate enslaved Virginians, and create an ex-slave nation in the Allegheny mountains, where they’d protect themselves in forts and strongholds.  By stripping counties in Virginia of their economic capital, Brown hoped to create a domino effect of economic collapse that would destroy the South’s slaveocracy.

His plan failed.  Seventeen people died, including ten of his men, and the state of Virginia executed him.

But he left quite a legacy.  His action was one of the most instrumental in bringing the country into the Civil War that killed hundreds of thousands of people and ultimately ended slavery.  When Union soldiers marched into the battlefield, they sang “John Brown’s Body.”
What lessons can we learn from the infamous case of John Brown?


One of the most controversial figures in U.S. history, many have called him the first domestic terrorist and a madman.  Indeed, he killed five men in Kansas, when the state was in bloody throes of whether it would be a free state or not.   But do those same people name the larger scale, state-endorsed terrorism that enslaved entire peoples for over two and a half centuries?
Brown himself observed, “Had I interceded…on behalf of the rich, powerful, and intelligent…it would have been right.  Every man in the court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.”


Comparing him to the paternalism of other white Northern abolitionists, W.E.B. Du Bois writes, “John Brown worked not simply for Black Men—he worked with them; and he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues, and felt, as few whites have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot.”

How does his example compare to white anti-racists today? 

How do white anti-racists account for the paradox of potentially further invisibilizing people of color?  Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser, for example, also attempted to lead slave rebellions, but they are not as famous.  Du Bois wanted to write a biography of Nat Turner or Fredrick Douglass but because of “editorial politics” he settled on John Brown.


Perhaps slavery would have ended through mass non-violent civil disobedience.  But failing to see that on the horizon and fearing that it may become too entrenched to become overthrown, Brown decided that insurrection, more than words and whether it failed or not, would loosen the roots of the slave system. 

He was not without a plan.  Brown modeled his rebellion after the American Revolution, complete with fundraising in the North, drafting (with assistance) a Constitution and a Declaration of the Slave Population of the USA, and political representatives for a new government.  Yet against the resources of the state, and with a very small army, he did not succeed.

What do you think?  Did his actions speak louder than words? What is the role of aggressive, uncompromising, strategic protest against a violent system? In a society, where more African-American men are incarcerated, on probation, or parole than were enslaved during the time of John Brown’s insurrection, how does his legacy inform us?

* Source: Lucas Guilkey, "The Legacy of John Brown."  Ella's Voice [Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Oakland, Calif.], 9 May 2012

My posted response: Thoughtful piece on Brown raising interesting questions.  Particularly interesting is the idea that white anti-racist allies might "invisibilize" people of color.  As a biographer of Brown, I don't think that his role has done so overall, particularly in the 20th centuries.  If anything, Brown has tended to "invizibilize" a large number of white abolitionist contemporaries.  Few blacks seems to remember, for instance, William Lloyd Garrison, let alone John Brown, in our times.  Yet Garrison was in many respects the forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr.   In our era, a prevalent anti-historical tendency and a present-mindedness has done more to "invizibilize" black abolitionists of the past than has the lightning rod figure of John Brown.   Furthermore, in the 19th century, it was African Americans who did a great deal to uplift Brown and did not seem to think they were rendering their own community leaders invisible in doing so.  Finally, W. E. B. DuBois's intention to write a biography of Frederick Douglass was nixed by Booker T. Washington's influence, not by John Brown.  Of course, this is a white-centered society, so the fundamental point remains true about how the white majority responds.  Millions of suffering enslaved black people did not move the North to anger, but the hanging of John Brown aroused Northern indignation.  So I'd suggest the bigger question is not white anti-racists, but the pervasive cultural narcissism that tends to focus on whites' contributions over the black struggle itself.

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