John Brown: A White Role Model

by William Loren Katz on January 21, 2006

This year marks the bicentennial of John Brown, born in 1800, and he was executed by the state of Virginia 141 years ago, on December 2, 1859. This year a PBS documentary film continued an effort that began even before his execution to sully his reputation. Why? He was a white man who gave his life fighting slavery but he did so before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He was a premature “emancipationist.” However, two years after John Brown’s death Union soldiers marched into the South singing of the man—”his truth goes marching on.” In the year 2000 PBS film finds no truths about Brown worth repeating. The documentary begins with a long, slow scene showing Brown being led to the gallows and ends with a long slow scene showing him being led to the gallows. This could seem like a warning to similarly inclined white people, and the public deserves better.

Brown was a devout Christian who saw slavery as violence and whose favorite Biblical quote was “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” He swore his entire family to the anti-slavery struggle; led armed bands that rescued enslaved people, and was an active agent of the underground railroad. In 1856 Brown fought slaveholders’ fire with rifle fire in the Kansas Civil War. He was not a man to be trifled with. When President James Buchanan offered a $250 reward for Brown’s capture, he offered $2.50 for Buchanan’s.

In 1858, he met in Canada with dozens of African Americans, including the father of Black nationalism, Martin R. Delany, to develop his liberation plan. The next year Brown led five African Americans, and 17 whites including three of his sons, to seize the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Their goal was to arm enslaved people, help them reach the Allegheny mountains, help them wage a war against bondage.

Enslaved African Americans rallied to Brown’s forces at Harper’s Ferry, but this has long been hidden from the public. Federal troops under Captain Robert E. Lee who commanded a Marine detachment surrounded the arsenal and boxed in Brown’s men. Ten of the raiders died fighting, five escaped, including one African American, and Brown and the others were captured. Virginia tried and convicted Brown of treason. Attending his execution were Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and John Wilkes Booth, three men soon to embark on a more massive treason of their own.

School textbooks have not forgiven Brown for his interracial band, his fearlessness, and his armed response to slavery. The textbook, “The American Pageant” by Bailey and Kennedy describes Brown’s exploit as “insane,” “mad exploit,” “crack-brained scheme,” “bloody purpose.”

African Americans saw Brown differently. They saw a man who looked at slavery as they did. Haiti, born of a slave rebellion, named a boulevard after him. W.E.B. DuBois called his biography of Brown his favorite book. Benjamin Quarles wrote a book on the positive response to the man and his deed by African Americans. In 1964, Malcolm X asked if would admit a white man to his new organization, said “John Brown.” This year Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture honored Brown with a special program, and I was a speaker there.

Brown was born the year that Gabriel organized a massive slave plot to capture Richmond, Virginia, and the year Nat Turner, who would lead a massive slave revolt in Virginia, was born. Brown pledged his family and his life to the destruction of bondage and white supremacy. At each step of the way he involved African Americans in his plans. At the Brown dinner table house Black children for the first time heard white people refer to their parents as “Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Smith.”

John Brown’s raid proved that free and enslaved people of color if given a chance would rise against bondage. It further proved that some whites were ready to join them and fight to the death. When captured, Brown refused any effort to save his life by pleading insanity and turned down a rescue plan. He used the forty days between his capture and his execution to focus national attention on slavery’s evil. His last note before his death said prophetically, “I am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.”

In death Brown became a martyr to millions. Garibaldi called him a “Jesus.” Victor Hugo called him “an apostle and a hero,” and on behalf of citizens of France gave his family a John Brown medal. “America has been hanged in John Brown,” wrote a Polish patriot. Black people declared a Martyr’s Day and in slave Baltimore placed his picture on their walls. Henry David Thoreau said, “He taught us how to live” and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said, “He told us what time of day it was, it was high noon.” Frederick Douglass said, “John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.”

Sixteen months after Brown was hanged, slaveholders began a civil war that took 600,000 lives. Before it was over 200,000 African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy, and in 39 major battles they turned the tide against the Confederacy. Black troops carried the message of Gabriel, Turner and Brown as they liberated their sisters and brothers.

During the John Brown program at the Schomburg Center, a Haitian American asked me why Haiti has a John Brown Boulevard, and the United States does not. He raised a very important question.

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