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John Brown: 150 years later

By Owei Lakemfa
“Where liberty draws not the blood out of slavery, slavery draws the blood out of liberty”-Walt Whiteman
THERE were lots of revolts  to free black slaves in the United States. There was Denmark Vesey who in 1822 with 37 of  his followers was hanged for planning a revolt. As he went before the hangman Vesey told the other convicts: “Do not open your lips! Die silent as you see me do”.

Another famous revolt was on August 21, 1830. Led by Nat Turner, 61 Whites were killed while the Whites killed over 120 slaves in retaliation and arrested hundreds.Turner and 16  Blacks were hanged but they had spread terror.
John Brown, a White abolitionist saw Turner as a hero. Born in Torrington, Connecticut in 1800, Brown was a deeply religious man who felt all human beings are God’s children, so none should be enslaved.

In 1853, the indigenous Indians were forced out of what became Nebraska and Kansas. Slave owners fought to make Kansas a slave territory while the abolitionist “Free Soilers” wanted it free of the evil. The next year, pro and anti-slavery Americans poured into Kansas to contest the territory. Amongst them were Brown and his five sons.

Armed clashes occurred and on May 21,1856, a pro-slavery force sacked Lawrence, an anti-slavery strong hold burning, looting and killing. Three days later, Brown and his sons retaliated, wiping out pro-slavers at Dutch Henry Crossing. The Kansas civil war was on. Kansas had two constitutions, two governors and two governments as both sides battled for the soul of the state.

But Brown did not think the battles in Kansas would win the war against slavery. He set his sight on a major plan to liberate slaves. In 1847 he had told the famous former slave, Frederick Douglas that “he had no better use of his life than to lay it down in the  cause of the slave”.

His plan was to set up a guerilla-type movement of armed men in the Blue Ridge Mountains which he said God had “placed here for the emancipation of the Negro race”. From this strong hold he planned to make forays into the South liberating slaves or encouraging them to take refuge in the mountain sanctuary. He hoped that by making slaves “insecure property”, slavery will ultimately become worthless property.

In January 1857, the United States Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott, a Black man, ruled by a 7-2 decision that Scot is not a citizen but a slave and that Blacks are inferior beings who were enslaved in their own interest. That slaves are not and cannot become part of the American people and that they “had no rights which a White man was bound to respect”.

This judgment further fired  Brown’s resolve to end slavery. That year, he began to recruit fighters for his guerrilla movement.

In 1859, Brown rented a farm near Harpers Ferry, Virginia having decided to attack and seize the federal arsenal in the city which usually stored 100,000 to 200,000 rifles. He believed that seizing the town and the rifles would draw the slaves to his side and a general struggle against slavery would ensue.

On the night of Sunday October 16, 1859, Brown and 21followers, including five Black men captured both the arsenal the town. But rather than move out immediately, he decided to dialogue with the town inhabitants. In process, 1,500 pro-slavery militia men from the town and adjoining towns surrounded Brown and his men. The 23 liberators fought heroically all night and could not be defeated by so large a militia.

It was no surprise as Brown had a reputation of defeating larger groups such as leading 30  men to subdue a militia of 400 from Missouri led by General Read.

Next morning, a 100 strong contingent of marines led by Robert Lee, later a famous General, attacked  and Brown was defeated. Nine of his followers, including two of his sons were killed, seven escaped while seven were captured; three of them, including Brown were injured.

Brown’s trial was legal lynching. It took place within one week of his capture giving him no time to organise a strong legal team. The jury was made up of farmers, including slave owners. Brown’s injuries were so serious that he had to be brought to court in a stretcher. He told the court that “one man and God can overturn the universe”.

On being sentenced to death, Brown told the jury: “I see a book kissed here which is the Bible, and which teaches me all things; that I would have men do unto me, so must I do unto them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I fought for the poor; and I say I was right”.

While awaiting execution, Brown said :“I am quite cheerful in view of my approaching end, being fully persuaded that I am worth inconceivably more to hang than for any other person”. On December 2, 1859 the day of Brown’s hanging, the famous American poet and essayist  Ralph  Waldo Emerson said Brown would “make the gallows glorious like the cross”.

As he was being led to the gallows, Brown slipped a note into the hands of a fellow prisoner which read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood, I had, as now think, vainly flattered myself that without much bloodshed it might be done”.

John Brown had struck severe blows against slavery, he  had shamed his accusers and persecutors who might have  thought he would beg for his life. He went to the gallows head held high and walked into martyrdom. His adversaries are forgotten in history but John Brown’s saintly accomplishments will never die.


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