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His soul goes marching on

By Owei Lakemfa
“John Brown’s Body Lies A Moldering In The Grave (Thrice)  His Soul Goes Marching On”
THAT song written by  Thomas Brigham Bishop in honour of John Brown the anti slavery hero is one of the most famous in the world. This Wednesday December 2, 2009 was the 150th commemoration of the hanging of John Brown, the saintly American abolitionist.

Although a White man, Brown became the patron saint of the Black people, and the American government under President Abraham Lincoln had to invoke his name to mobilise Black people to join the American army. One of the leading Americans of his day, Henry David Thoreau said on the day of Brown’s hanging: “I plead not for his life, but for his character- his immortal life …some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was sacrificed; this morning, per chance, Captain Brown was hung.

These are two ends of a chain which is not without it links. He is not old Brown any longer; he is an angel of light”.

To the American government Thoreau said “The murderer always knows that he is justly punished; but when a government takes the life of a man without the consent of his conscience, it is an audacious government and is taking a step towards its own dissolution”

Humanity is used to stories of heroism. The Spartans were known for their valour and extreme sense of patriotism. Adolf Hitler had thought his conquest of the world was assured until he faced the heroic Soviet people. Knowing that they were the only line of defence between the Nazi hordes and their wives, children and parents, the Soviet soldiers fought until death. Twenty five million Soviets gave their lives to stop Hitler.

When the Iranians under Ayatollah Khomeni were attacked by Sadam Hussein’s Iraq, the youths threw themselves into battle looking death in the face and enthusiastically embracing it. The Japanese Kamikaze fighters took off in aircraft to commit suicide by crashing into American warships. Today, we have suicide bombers of every hue and cry devastating stronger forces with huge collateral damage to the innocent, young and the old.

But none of these surpasses John Brown’s sacrifice which was not for the defence of country, religion or ideology, but for that of his neighbours, the Black slaves of America .

Christ’s charge is “Love Thy Neighbour As Thy Self” but Brown extended it to “Love Thy Neighbor More Than Thyself”. No greater Christ- like love has any man shown than Brown who laid down his life and those of his biological sons in defence of his down-trodden, oppressed and enslaved Black neighbours.

The enslavement and exploitation of Africa was the foundation on which the economic prosperity of Europe and America was built. There was therefore the temptation to reduce the universal struggle for social justice to a Black and White one. But Brown’s saintly sacrifice sent Blacks in a different direction. He was a privileged and rich White man, yet he laid down his life for the African-American.

His major role in emancipating the African- American slave gave impetus to the struggle for equality and social justice in America . When in 1906, leading African-American intellectuals led by W.E.B. Du Bois gathered to formally launch the Niagara Movement, they symbolically, chose Harper’s Ferry where Brown struck the greatest blow for the emancipation of the African-American.

The legendary Malcolm X started out as an unrepentant racist. He was for separatism; Blacks having their own exclusive states with capital in Chicago and Whites having the rest of the United States . He opposed integration, arguing that the strongest coffee is the Black coffee and that it does not become weak until it is “integrated” with white milk.

He felt the White man is a pollutant. However, he made an exception of Brown. He told White Americans: “If you are for me and my problem- when I say me, I mean us, our Black people- then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did”.

Although, the African Americans suffered terrible hardship and discrimination, including in the 1960s when they could not use public facilities with Whites or vote, the sacrifice of Brown was a constant reminder that the issue was not the colour of a man’s skin, but the class he belongs to and the ideology he carries in his head.

Today, African Americans like President Barack Obama are occupying senior positions in America partly because of the sacrifice of people like Brown.

The tendency to reduce issues to race was manifest in the anti colonial struggles in places like Kenyan, Algeria , Zimbabwe and South Africa. But there were constant reminders by Brown- like fighters for justice that the struggle was not on that plain.

In the struggle against apartheid, there was the case of the White couple who gave all they had to smash the evil system. Ruth First fought apartheid until she had to flee into exile where the Apartheid regime sent her a letter bomb which killed her.

Her husband, Joe Slovo fought into old age training cadres of the Umkhonto We Sizwe, the anti-apartheid army.
Although the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had the slogan “One Settler, One Bullet”, the ANC, in the spirit imbibed in it by people like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Thambo, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki rejected this racist programme. It judges people not by their colour but by their character and contribution to the struggle.

Perceptive people did not mourn John Brown, his sons and followers who laid down their lives 150 years ago to liberate the African American. Rather, they imbibed their unquenchable spirit and struggled to bring the evil system of slavery to an end.

This is what we should also do; wherever there is injustice, as in Sudan , Western Sahara, and the Palestine , there should our soul be.


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