REVISIONING JOHN BROWN — paper prepared by Mumia Abu Jamal
“HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON” for a public discussion at Carnegie Mellon, Pittsburgh, Oct. 2, 2006
John Brown poses difficult and undeniable problems for us. For some like Staughton Lynd his violence and his authoritarian nature, indeed his profoundly disturbing certainty of his mission ordained by god, makes him a troubling model for the challenges of our hour. This is especially so, for many of us who feel the urgent need for Black and White social movements providing the energy for true social change. At the cross roads stands the shade of John Brown who blocks the way forward unless and until we can make peace with the ghost of this uniquely American warrior. That is because we have tended to remember Brown, if at all, as this God intoxicated mad man. In our minds his eyes flash lighting and his white beard flows with his rage, his teeth barred with malevolence. For if he is indeed mad then he may be safely jettisoned to the netherworld of otherness for we are sane. John Brown was mad.
But are we not selective in our revulsion at needless violence? In Washington DC the imperial capital, there stands a statue — petina green with time — honoring none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest who as a confederate general in the civil war staged the infamous Fort Pillow massacre on April 13th 1864 where mostly Black union soldiers were murdered in cold blood, after their surrender. Moreover Forrest became a leading force in the post war US terrorist group known as the Ku Klux Klan. Yet there his statue stands to this very day on honored ground. Why one wonders should we bring up Forrest when discussion Brown? What could this possibly mean when thinking of Blacks and Whites working together to build a social change movement?
If we are honest then we must recognize that the common nexus is violence, but that is not all. The central theme is race. General Nathan Bedford Forrest fought both during and after the Civil War for White Nationalism and Black subordination. He fought for the freedom to enslave others. John Brown fought both in Kansas and in Harpers Ferry against slavery and for Black freedom. Only in a nation deeply committed to white nationalism and white supremacy would Forrest have statues built to his memory enshrined in the national capital no less, and Brown be remembered—if at all—as a madman. It is only in this context that Brown’s immense contribution can be discussed, for to do otherwise is to speak of him and of violence in a vacuum. Staughton Lynd straightforwardly addressed the John Brown of Pottawatomie Kansas and his group’s slaughter of five pro slavery men in May 1856. We should note, however, that Brown and his boys were part of a war in bleeding Kansas, a war to determine whether the territory would become a free state, or a slave state. And that violence, indeed horrific violence, was rampant on both sides. And the pro slavery side was winning. By using ruthless racist violence, terrorism and fear Kansas was tilting toward being a pro slavery state. Then came John Brown. Of Pottawatomie Workers World writer Shelly Ettinger recently wrote “At Pottawatomie on the night of May 24-25, 1856, John Brown led an armed band in a lightning raid against an encampment where he knew he’d find several of the worst of the Border Ruffians who were terrorizing the territory. When Brown and company rode off, they left the dead bodies of five racist thugs. The criminals Brown and his band killed had been responsible for many assaults and murders; they were also known for capturing Native women and forcing them into prostitution and sexually assaulting Free State women.” [Workers World, September 14, 2006) Pottawatomie changed the temper of the times. Kansas was still bleeding Kansas but it was not only anti-slavery blood that flowed.
It is not about violence. It is about on which side the violence was utilized. Violence in support of slavery was invisible. Violence in support of freedom was horrible. Speaking of slavery what was that but violence? It was violence made acceptable and invisible by the verbal violence of the law. The John Brown who worked for several months writing the Chatham constitution knew this. And in the preamble to that document made it abundantly clear what he thought of slavery. A position by the way that was agreed to by the scores of Black men who met with him at the Chatham convention in Canada.
Indeed this Chatham constitution did not merely contemplate freedom and slavery. In a call that reflects its foresight, it called for sexual equality; a remarkable achievement considering it was written and voted for in 1858.
In his words expressed in the declaration of liberty Brown observed that “slavery from its earliest inception was none other than a most barbarous unprovoked and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion” unquote. This constitution was a declaration of war between two irreconcilable sides, slavery and freedom. John Brown chose freedom. Nor did he speak of something that would be alien in Black hearts; none other than Frederick Douglas eight years before the Chatham convention described enslaved captives as “prisoners of war in an enemy’s country, of a war too that is unrivaled for its injustice, cruelty and meanness.” Douglass unabashedly called for war against the slavery system and even after the civil war began he was a persistent and unrelenting critic of Lincoln for his failure to call for Black troops. And what of Lincoln? Lincoln, the man honored today as the great emancipator, derided Brown and took pains to distance himself and his party from Brown’s efforts. In a speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City on February 1860. Lincoln argued:
“You charge that we stir up insurrection among your slaves. We deny it. And what is your proof? Harpers Ferry. John Brown. John Brown was no republican and you have failed to implicate a single a republican in his Harpers Ferry enterprise.” Lincoln went on to compare Brown to lunatics and rageacides, drawing from glaring flawed examples abroad. Lincoln argued:
“John Brown’s effort was peculiar — it was not a slave insurrection, it was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact it was so absurd that the slaves with all their ignorance saw plainly enough that it would not succeed. That affair in its philosophy corresponds with the many attempts related in history of the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by heaven to liberate. He ventures the attempt which ends in little else than his own execution. Orsini’s.attempt on Louie Napoleon and John Brown’s attempt at Harpers Ferry were in their philosophy precisely the same.” — That was Abraham Lincoln.
Two years before his Cooper Institute speech in September 1858, Lincoln would exclaim, “I do not suppose that the most peaceful ultimate extinction [of slavery] would occur in less than a hundred years at the least.” As the famed Black historian Lerone Bennet has written if Lincoln had had his way: Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King jr., Jessie Jackson senior, Lena Horn, Booker T Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington, Muhammad Ali, Jessie Owens, Louie Armstrong, WC Handy, Hank Aaron, Maya Angelou, Debbie Allen, Benjamin Quarles, Josephine Baker, Mary McCloud Bethune, Ralph Bunch, Malcolm X. Rosa Parks, Leontyne Price, Bessie Smith, Walter White, Madame CJ Walker, Maxine Waters, Count Basie, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ida B Wells-Barnett, Richard Wright, Alex Haley, and even Clarence Thomas, would have been born in slavery.
John Brown changed that. His sole surviving comrade Osborn Anderson in his remarkable book “A Voice from Harpers Ferry” writes a far different history than the professionals. For one thing he was there. And barely escaped with his life. For another he was a revolutionary who knew the principals. He argues that Harpers Ferry could have had a completely different ending for those men and the nation had Brown been less solicitous of his hostages. Anderson wrote “that hundreds of slaves were ready and would have joined in the work had Captain Brown’s sympathies not been aroused in favor of the families of his prisoners, and that a very different result would have been seen in consequence there is no question. There was abundant opportunity for him and the party to leave a place in which they held entire sway and possession before the arrival of the troops, and so cowardly were the slave holders proper that from Colonel Lewis Washington the descendant of the father of his country (General George Washington) they were easily taken prisoners. They had not pluck enough to fight nor to use the well loaded arms in their possession. But were concerned rather in keeping a whole skin by parlaying or by spilling cowardly tears to excite pity, as did Colonel Washington and as in that way escape merited punishment. No, the conduct of the slaves was beyond all praise, and could our brave old captain have steeled his heart against the entreaties of his captives or shut up the fountains of his sympathies against their families, could he for the moment have forgotten them in the selfish thought of his own friends and kindred, or by adhering to the original plan, have left the place and thus looked forward to the prospective freedom of the slaves, hundreds ready and waiting would have been armed before 24 hours had elapsed.”— Osborn Anderson, as one of the Black and White revolutionaries who tried to seize Harpers Ferry and thus fully cognizant of the failures of that effort, yet also saw the national impact of Brown’s work as setting the light to the fuse that would blast slavery into the trash can of history.
In Anderson’s words published in 1859, “As it was even the noble old man’s mistakes were productive of great good. The fact of which the future historian will record without the embarrassment attending its present narration. John Brown did not only capture and hold Harpers Ferry for 20 hours, but he held the whole south, he captured President Buchanan and his cabinet, convulsed the whole country, killed Governor Wise and dug the mine and laid the train which will eventually dissolve the union between freedom and slavery, the rebound reveals the truth, so let it be. Two years after Anderson’s words were on the page, uniformed men were marching with John Brown’s name on their lips as the Civil War dissolved the union between freedom and slavery.
If we go into any Black neighborhood today whether north south, Midwest or west, and asked the question which three white men are most admired I would wager that most would answer with perhaps the following 1) Jesus 2) John F Kennedy and three John Brown. I grew up in a project home where my mother had a painting of a blue eyed Jesus next to a photo of John F Kennedy on the living room wall. Only after his 1968 assassination did the face of Martin Luther King Jr. get placed in the middle. The point is that in Black memory John Brown holds a treasured place. His example, his sacrifice, and yes, his fight against slavery, made him a name that would not be forgotten. That is because blacks know almost instinctively that whites who would put their lives on the line for Blacks are rare creatures. Yet whites try their damndest to forget him, remember “he’s crazy.” How we reconcile his memory and his meaning for America will go a long way toward determining, whether, how and indeed if we work together to try to go about social change. Comes down to something that is also incredibly rare and that is trust. During the 60’s as Staunton Lynd remembers, Blacks in SNCC or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, urged their white members to leave for a few years while both Blacks and Whites “got it together.” As he notes those few years turned into decades and don’t seem any closer even as we open a new century. Later in the 60’s and early 70’s a group tried to aspire to John Brown’s high standard: the SDS or the students for a democratic society. As a member of the formation has recently noted, it broke from within chiefly because of the toxin of white supremacy. David Gilbert, writing of the split informs us, “SDS split apart along the basic fault line of the US bedrock of white supremacy. Between the desire for a potential majority base among white Americans and the urgent need for militant solidarity with Black and other third world struggles, one side invoking a Euro centric Marxism, said that the “revolution was about the working class” and used that as a left cover for retreat from fighting alongside Vietnam and the Panthers, claiming all nationalism is reactionary. The other side inspired by Marxist- led third world struggles rightly saw solidarity with national liberation as a priority for any revolutionary movement worthy of that name. However we wrongly abandoned efforts to organize significant numbers of white people, which also limited our base for anti-racist activism.” “That is from No Surrender — writings from an anti-imperialist, David Gilbert. The children who claim John Brown’s paternity could not measure up to the man. As long whites can opt out of a true revolutionary movement and the state will provide every opportunity, then they will do so, especially when the forces of repression ratchet up the pressure. In the MOVE organization when the conflict between the state and the organization hardened we saw whites and other races peel away from the movement, leaving its mostly Black core. When the going gets rough Whites get going, it seems.
That was the meaning and intent of the killing of a white housewife from Detroit named Viola Liuzzo slain by the Klan in Alabama but also defamed by the FBI for the capital crime of being like John Brown, a nigger lover. In a white supremacist state there is no greater crime than a white national can commit. Consider if you will the main offense for which John Brown was convicted, sentenced and executed for “treason” — this for a man who fought successfully for the inclusion of an article in the 1858 Chatham Constitution over objection which forbade any attempt to overthrown any state or the federal government. Brown in defense of article 46 argued “the old flag is good enough for me; under it freedom was won from the tyrants of the old world for white men, now I intend to make it do duty for Black men. By so doing he betrayed whiteness and earned the moniker ‘mad’”
John Brown certainly lacked a democratic sense — one that is virtually always lacking in a military structure. He was also a man drunk with a certainty of his mission from god. Yet so too was Martin Luther King. Staughton Lynd’s Zapatista visions, does give us valuable insight into another way of living in the world. It is refreshing such democracy as practiced not by the people so much as so called leaders; we see such things so rarely today. We can all learn from the struggles in the south, from Latin America, where we find indigenous led and women led formations that are deeply rooted in the community. The ghost of John Brown stands between us even after one hundred and fifty years. How we remember him, and indeed —if —we remember him has impact on what future we will have. Was he mad? Or was he inspired by the burning fire of freedom? How we answer that question will determine whether he will go in peace or continue to haunt us into our future.
From death row this is Mumia Abu Jamal.