"The lack of historical consensus regarding John Brown," asserted longtime labor, racial justice, and international activist Bill Fletcher, "speaks to the ideological confusions we continue to face." Fletcher — a columnist for Black Commentator, Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies, and former president of TransAfrica — noted that John Brown was anti-slavery, but not just that; he was anti-racist, but there were others at the time who were anti-racist as well. As Fletcher suggested that Brown's difference was his dramatic defense of enslaved Africans, people he actually befriended and liked, he summarized the dividing line question which still remains: "Was Brown a terrorist or was he engaging in an emancipatory practice?"
This year's Left Forum — the annual coming together of a broad spectrum of left and progressive intellectuals, activists, academics, organizations and the interested public, the largest in the US — was a different one than usual for me. Award-winning and beloved science fiction writer and old buddy Terry Bisson asked me to join his panel on a favorite topic of ours: the legacy of abolitionist John Brown.
Aside from the infamous failed assault on Harpers Ferry in 1859 — the act many credit as a short-term cause of the Civil War — Brown was a leading part of the Bloody Kansas battles which ultimately led that state to enter the USA prohibiting slavery. Bisson is author of the "what if" classic Fire on the Mountain (which PM Press has just wisely put back into print), telling the tale of the United States that would have been had Harriet Tubman not gotten ill in the Spring of 1859, and had joined — as planned — Brown and others in the West Virginia raid. Instead of that pretty fantasy, we are left with the reality of Brown's capture and public hanging, and some ancient tunes about "John Brown's body." I was honored to share a platform with Fletcher and Bisson and others; this weekend we tried to breathe some life into still-vital debates.
"Occupy Harper's Ferry" was the perhaps-misguided title to our overflow workshop, which was supposed to inspire dialogue about the relevance of Brown to current movements. For me, this question was clear: as a life-long nonviolent activist, what message does Brown have in the current debates about tactics and strategy, and alliances which need to be built? The sub-titled question, why radicals (including pacifists) should support John Brown, left my job directly spelled out. I was to represent the parenthesis, and outline why I thought Brown was significant — then and now. My comments took up seven short points, as follows:
- As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. poignantly noted, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere—and injustice along racial lines has only increased since those comments were made. As Michelle Alexander noted in her indispensible book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the number of Black people in prison today exceeds the number of enslaved Africans in 1850, ten years before the Civil War. The "abolitionist movement" today talk about abolishing prisons (a special responsibility of Quakers, who helped found the penitentiary), but — for activists committed to ending violence (starting with the violence of the state) — prisons are but the tip of the iceberg.
- As Minister Malcolm X poignantly noted, John Brown was the white person most dedicated to the liberation of African/Black folks in the USA. When asked by whites if there was anything they could do to help end the injustices of the time, any role model they could follow, Malcolm always mentioned John Brown.
- John Brown understood that the struggle was not just to free enslaved Africans and end a "peculiar" institution, but to be in militant solidarity with the oppressed, and in so doing rid ourselves of the oppression so pervasive in our country and ourselves.
- In his day, pacifists always supported John Brown; Brown's so-called "ambivalent co-conspirators" — the Secret Six of well-known and wealthy supporters — may not have agreed with all of the tactics he used, but they met with him, funded him, and laid the basis for his ongoing legacy.
- Henry David Thoreau, one of the historic champions of nonviolent resistance and a close friend of Brown's, had this to say about him: Brown was "a man of rare common-sense and directness of speech, as of action; ... He was not in the least a rhetorician...; had no need to invent anything but to tell the simple truth, and communicate his own resolution; therefore he appeared incomparably strong...."
- We are today in no less need of nuanced, dialectical thinking — of an understanding of the false dichotomies between violence and nonviolence — than we were in the 1860s or the 1960s. The "official government version" of US history, for example, suggests that Malcolm and Martin were enemies, polar opposites of two movements which could never connect. It is time to put that historical falsehood to rest, and to put into practice the dialogues, debates, and alliances which Brown and Thoreau, which Martin and Malcolm, began to forge.
- We are, more than ever, in need of revolutionary, end-of-empire thinking that understands that the real enemy — those in favor of slavery in all its mischievous forms, of greed and unchecked power — will not stand well if we are creative, hopeful, resolute, united, and clear in our radical vision. We may not need to make unsuccessful armed raids against US government arsenals, but we surely do need to take militant positions against racism, imperialism, sexism, militarism, and oppression in all its forms.
Bill Fletcher correctly noted that the issue of race is an ongoing "trip wire" in US politics. In many ways, Fletcher suggested, the Civil War was never completed, its fundamental issues "never resolved." When an edge of seriousness surrounded a satire column reporting that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney stated in Alabama that he can relate to Blacks because his family used to own several of them, the point is driven home. John Brown showed that white folks must play a role in movements for liberation; he "positioned himself as a partner" in the freedom struggle. There must be no excuses preventing us from building broad partnerships in the freedom struggles of our time.