John Brown (1800-1859)
A JOHN BROWN REVIVAL
William W. Berry
495 Connecticut Street
Buffalo, New York 14213
First Serial Rights
A John Brown Revival
"By any means necessary." I had not heard those words articulated outside over a microphone since a rally rattling the Justice Department in early May, 1971. But here it was, May 6, 2000, and Ron Daniels, Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, had just come up from New York City and pronounced them. He spoke of shared values in the mid-afternoon sun in an Adirondack mountain meadow, punctuated by huge gray boulders and the leaning grave stone of a hero. As the peaks of Marcy and Algonquin emerged from the clouds, he pictured his audience as a "family gathering."
It sure was a diverse family. Two hours earlier, as I arrived in the mist with hundreds of them at John Brown's farm after a mile's walk up from Trinity Chapel together, an innocent young white man, done up in his take on a Union uniform, knife in sheath at his side, saluted me. Before us, a troupe of teen-aged African-American women dancers quivered and stepped in the grass to resonating drum beats. Uniformed park rangers swayed to the same rhythm.
Ron called out to us all for a new abolitionism, because "the color line is still there."
He demanded a moratorium on prison construction and the abolition of the death penalty, illiteracy and the disenfranchisement of 1.4 million non-violent felony convicts. He pleaded with this family to reverse the attack on affirmative action and asked, "When will we get paid for the work we did as slaves?"
The occasion was a two-day celebration of John Brown's 200th Birthday, and Ron Daniels declared, as Ossie Davis had the night before, that "John Brown is smiling today" at this gathering put together to remember his suffering and to keep his egalitarian spirit alive.
Indeed, the Adirondack-based "grassroots freedom education project" which planned the event calls itself "JOHN BROWN LIVES!". Martha Swan, the electric, energetic (and prophetic) organizer of the group, told me earlier that morning that last year JOHN BROWN LIVES! revived a yearly birthday wreath-laying tradition begun by the Philadelphia NAACP in 1922.
Terry Noe, the serene park ranger who helped arrange the events of the past two years, and proudly pointed out to me Marcy, also known as Tahawus or Cloudsplitter, and Algonquin, said she thought the yearly pilgrimage had died out "somewhere around 1978." Swan agreed that the enormity and influence of Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter had rekindled enthusiasm for the yearly ceremony. Last year's was "kind of a dry run for this year's 200th," she recalled. She intends to carry it on into the future. She will do this to afford activists for equality the models and examples she believes they need. Sweet home grown music and singing graced all this year's events and set a palpable tone of life and reinvigoration.
At Trinity Chapel that Saturday morning, after the music, speaker Bob Albrecht, a professor at Alfred State College in western New York, had anticipated Ron Daniel's "by any means necessary" sentiments. Though his students had created perhaps thirty posters examining the varied reactions to the "Old Man's" deeds at Harper's Ferry and Pottawatomie Creek, all hanging that day in John Brown's barn, he cut to the quick.
"Why are there no John Brown High Schools or John Brown Memorial Bridges in all of New York State?" he wondered. "Why is there no John Brown postage stamp?" Then he answered himself: "America's difficulty with John Brown is, very simply, the violence." He meant, of course, "non-official" violence. The educator then implored the congregation to understand the context of John Brown's fight to the death against slavery and its sympathizers.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 permitted a bounty hunter to earn a year's wages by charging any black person found in the North with being an escaped slave and "returning" that person to the South. The person so charged had no right to answer. In 1856, southern Congressman Preston Brooks beat anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner almost to death on the floor of the U.S. Capitol. He stopped only when his shillelagh broke. When the vote to expel Brooks from Congress failed, he resigned and was immediately re-elected. Kansas was at war over slavery and John Brown's son, Frederick, died there, Albrecht informed us.
Dr. Katherine Butler Jones, whose African-American ancestors settled in the Adirondacks, and called the place Timbucto, had just explained that in 1843, at an abolitionist meeting in Buffalo, a black minister by the name of Garnett had declared the inability of moral suasion to end slavery and publicly urged slaves to revolt, reasoning that it was better to die a martyr than live as a slave. The Garrisonians defeated the proposal by one vote.
For me, her tale revived all the old anti-war movement debates on the role of violence in the work for social change. The ups and downs began swimming in my head, reminding me that my own peace with the dilemma came only after I had been physically attacked by Federal agents and responded in kind, without thinking about it very much at all.
I almost missed Dr. Jones' revealing that Timbucto was the plan of a wealthy abolitionist, Gerritt Smith, to grant land to black men so that they would be able to vote. At the time of Smith's Adirondack land grant in 1846, black men in New York could vote only if they owned property worth at least $250. White men didn't have to own property to have the right to vote. John Brown, a shepherd and breeder and land surveyor had moved to Timbucto to assist the black settlers. Later, at the meadow outside John Brown's home, Amy Godine, a regional historian, would describe the "Dreaming of Timbucto" Exhibition, of which she is curator. It will open next Spring in the Adirondacks and "set the record straight" on the Adirondacks' African-American pioneers and the land they needed to own to vote.
Maurice Kenny, the native Mohawk poet, followed Dr. Jones to the pulpit and proceeded to lyrically and honestly equate religion, liquor and smallpox "blankets soaked in death." Adding a dose of humor, he observed that he was so excited about his reading, he had forgotten to brush his teeth.
The previous evening, thirty miles away in another church in Elizabethtown, actor Ossie Davis had engaged us all by admitting that he was so wrought-up about reading from an 1881 Frederick Douglass speech in praise of John Brown, he had forgotten to shave. Mercifully, no other performers owned up to their particular bodily omissions.
Referring to his own extensive FBI dossier, Ossie Davis remarked that "after tonight, the FBI will assign someone to John Brown. If anyone knocks on your door asking about John Brown, tell them 'John Brown lives and that he's a grand, brave and good old man.'"
Ossie Davis recited the Douglass speech and got to its heart :
The Harper's Ferry Raid, viewed alone, is an atrocity.
But it cannot be viewed alone, just as Sherman's March
cannot be viewed alone.
Shortly, the steaming crowd of 250 got to its feet in applause. They had listened in tears to folksinger Peggy Eyres' wonderful and emotional "Mary Brown's Lament," from a letter written by his wife to John Brown on November 1, 1859, the day she learned he was to be hanged. They had witnessed Frederick Douglass in the person of Ossie Davis exclaiming, "They could kill him but they could not answer him."
But for me the most moving point of the evening came a little earlier when Matt Dickerson, an Elizabethtown high school student, asked everyone a question. He wondered if John Brown had done what he did at Harper's Ferry, not then, in 1859, but at this time in this place, in a fight for those who are dispossessed in the here and now, would we execute him? Surrounded as we were in the Adirondacks by New York's proliferating prisons and its putative death row, as Martha Swan had just observed, no one in that church could have had an easy answer to that one.