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This week marks John Brown’s 210th birthday. After enduring a month of Southern states celebrating the Confederacy, let’s hear it for abolitionist John Brown.
Brown was born on May 9, 1800. When he took over Harpers Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, he was not only drawing attention to the crime of slavery, he was also trying to provide the spark for a slave rebellion.
He declared his “sympathy with the oppressed and wronged, that are good as you and as precious in the sight of God.” This was a direct challenge to the South, to slaveholders everywhere and to white supremacy.
And even after he was tried and convicted of treason against the state of Virginia, even as he awaited the gallows, he did not relent.
“You may dispose of me easily, but this question is still to be settled — the Negro question — the end of that is not yet,” he said. Prophetically, he added: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”
Brown’s willingness to give his life for equality and freedom puts the lie to all the efforts to recast the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression” and to sugarcoat the honoring of the Confederacy with such slogans as “Heritage, Not Hate.”
We blacks know in our bones that Confederate History Month is nothing more than the glorification of white supremacy. We shouldn’t stand for it, and nor should any American who believes in the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
The neo-Confederate motto is “Never forget.” We should all adopt it.
Let’s never forget John Brown. Let’s never forget the other abolitionists, black and white, who campaigned against slavery. Let’s make sure that their stories are told in our national parks and on the markers and monuments and at the battle sites that serve as tourist attractions for Civil War buffs.
I recently visited Harpers Ferry, Antietam, Appomattox and other Civil War sites. I was the only black person in sight, with the exception of a few park workers. At Appomattox, I saw visitors placing Confederate flags on tombstones.
Doubtless, the efforts to rehabilitate the Southern cause seem to come at moments of racial and social stress by folk who feel alienated and angry about a “black” president or health care reform or “big government,” though their anti-government concerns seem to melt away when it comes to spending tax dollars to maintain the ever-growing list of parks, monuments and battle sites.
Still, the glorification of the Confederacy is mostly about white resistance to black advances, white resentment at the erosion of white privilege. It’s been that way since the 1880s and 1890s.
So, no, we should never forget.
We should not forget that even during enslavement and the war people of African descent fought back. There were the five black men among Brown’s raiding party: Lewis Leary, Dangerfield Newby, Shields Green, Osborne Perry Anderson and John Anthony Copeland Jr., along with the 16 white men who followed Brown to Harpers Ferry.
The fight to protect white privilege goes on. We have to fight back by being honest about the history of our republic. And we have to tell all our stories.
Remember John Brown.
Kevin Alexander Gray is the author of the recently published books “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.