Refusing to Surrender: John Brown and White Anti-Racist Struggle
By Dan Berger
A note to the reader: Framing the language in this article has been rather difficult. While intended for anyone interested in John Brown and anti-racist struggle, as a white anti-racist writing about another white anti-racist, I feel this article has particular relevance and importance to other whites interested in dismantling white supremacy. A desire to both place myself in the article as a white person and draw the attention of other whites to key strategic issues led me to use exclusive words like ‘we’ or ‘us.’ While John Brown’s legacy needs to be studied by all struggling against white supremacy – and this article is an attempt to add to that study and dialogue – whites especially need to pay attention. As such, my goal is for white anti-racists to think more tactically and strategically in the struggle against white supremacy; my goal is not to marginalize or alienate readers of color. I hope I have succeeded.
From 1800 until his execution for treason by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1859, John Brown lived white anti-racist struggle. A threat to the institutions of slavery and white supremacy, Brown’s militant acts against United States racism terrified the white power structure and continue to frighten it. While highlighting his life and deeds helps us understand our history and shape our activism, his shortcomings must also inform our organizing. Only by critically viewing history – not romanticizing or dismissing it – can we hope to learn from it.
Through his work defending abolitionists, Brown provided direct physical support to Blacks and whites confronting the slave system. His belief in armed struggle distanced him from many in the largely pacifist abolitionist movement. Yet when under attack, Brown was the first person anti-slavery forces turned to. His belief in the humanity of Black people also set him apart from many whites in the patronizingly racist abolitionist movement. While exemplary of the time for principled, militant and direct action against slavery, Brown lacked a cohesive strategy for waging offensive struggle and, above all, lacked a comprehensive revolutionary analysis. These shortcomings led to his death, and could mean a similar fate for modern white anti-racists if repeated.
In the mid-1850s, turmoil over slavery in the United States was especially pronounced in Kansas, where pro-slavery settlers from Missouri were terrorizing the predominantly pacifist anti-slavery settlers. When border ruffians, as the pro-slavery forces were called, rigged elections determining whether Kansas would be a slave state and killed several anti-slavery settlers in 1856, Brown and four others killed five key border ruffians, including a judge.
The abolitionist movement in Kansas split: some supported Brown, and went so far as to pick up arms. Some distanced themselves from him, even becoming pro-slavery, calling into question their original commitment to abolitionism. Kansas became engulfed in a civil war, during which many communities asked Brown and his well-trained, small army to protect them. But Brown was clear on the purpose of his armed struggle; it wasn’t a vigilante group, it was an abolitionist movement army. He only gave protection to those communities who engaged in anti-slavery work. The war climaxed at Osawatomie in August 1856 where, vastly outnumbered, Brown’s troops defeated the pro-slavery forces in Kansas. This time period in Brown’s life is especially exemplary of the ways in which Brown tactically knew how to polarize people through political action.
Osawatomie is perhaps Brown’s greatest military victory, but he had previously responded to the expansion of the slave system. After the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, allowing slave owners and others to seize and re-enslave alleged runaway slaves – a law with tremendous impact on all Black people in the United States – Brown helped organize the League of Gileadites, a self-defense group, in Springfield, Mass. The league’s principles, written by Brown, display his firm belief in solidarity and the need for non-cooperation with the ruthless state or white vigilantes, saying, “stand by one another and by your friends, while a drop of blood remains, and be hanged if you must but tell no tales out of school. Make no confession. Union is strength.”
Beyond coordinating and carrying out armed responses, Brown and his family served as catalysts for principled and radical action in a movement tempered by reformism and racism. Brown toured the country on speaking tours raising money for arms and other supplies to defend abolitionists, the anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and to go on the offensive. Moving to Kansas to help the abolitionist struggle there, the Brown family helped lead the challenge to the more moderate abolitionists who thought appeals to Congress and slave-owners – using the racist platform that slavery should be abolished because it hurt white labor – sufficed.
While the movement to abolish slavery had many white members, it was not united around a need for Black liberation, nor was it even founded on the principle of Black humanity. Many abolitionist societies excluded African and African American participation, and abolitionism was rooted more in white paternalism than anything else. In such a climate, Brown’s ideas for an independent, armed Black nation were indeed radical. To push the movement forward, Brown knew it was time to get beyond defensive actions. It can be argued that this represents the foundational start of organized white anti-racism in the United States.
GOING ON THE OFFENSIVE: THE RAID ON HARPER’S FERRY
A month after the battle in Kansas, Brown began touring and meeting with leading abolitionists to plan an offensive attack against the institution of slavery. Building off the growing momentum of radical abolitionism – from slave escapes to slave rebellions and beyond – Brown and his compatriots picked the Harper’s Ferry federal arsenal in Virginia, now West Virginia, as the first site of their insurrection.
After years of planning, on Oct. 17, 1859, with 10,000 pikes and the latest in rifle technology, 15 whites and five Blacks – mostly in their 20s, with military experience and, like Brown, religious – easily captured the town of Harper’s Ferry with little bloodshed. In a symbolic gesture of the revolutionary shift of power of which they were attempting, Brown’s band took a sword from George Washington’s grandson that was given to Washington by Frederick the Great and bestowed it upon one of the Black freedom fighters. This raid of a federal arsenal in the South, an effort to start a slave insurrection to destroy slavery and lead to Black sovereignty, had several strategic goals: to strike at slave owners and draw slaves into the rebellion; to deny rifles to the slaveocracy; to heighten the national debate around slavery; and to inspire the abolitionist movement in spite of its pacifist and reformist leanings.
While key strategic thinking was used in planning the raid, a lack of a clear sense of tactical possibilities and priorities squashed the raid. The group took several hostages, and Brown wavered between the war to arm slaves and his naïve hope to negotiate peacefully with the slaveocracy. In the end, he put more value on the hostages than on his own group, and federal troops – led by Robert E. Lee, the eventual commander of the Confederate Army – captured or killed most of Brown’s band, including several of his sons.
Though hindsight is always 20/20 on issues of strategy and tactics, it is fair to say that, beyond killing him and most of the people in his group, Brown’s mistake – rooted partially in his conception of Christianity, which highly regarded sacrifice and dramatic witness – was a setback for the movement. As Butch Lee says in Jailbreak out of History, her important re-biography of Harriet Tubman, the United States was heading toward war, but the tone of that war was not yet fully determined. Instead of helping build a war with Black liberation as its central goal, the failed raid helped spark a civil war over the preservation of the white nation. In the Civil War, abolition was grudgingly and sluggishly given only as a weapon against the south. While Black revolutionaries continued to fight for their liberation, their numbers were smaller and they had fewer weapons and liberated territory than they would have had Brown succeeded.
Despite the raid’s military failure, radicals throughout the world recognized its significance. The abolitionist movement that fed and sheltered Brown on his speaking tours pulled together after his arrest at Harper’s Ferry. Blueprints of the jail where he was held were printed in northern newspapers to encourage rescue attempts. An armed force including 100 European socialists planned a rescue, but Brown discouraged it due to the security under which he was held.
Black women provided direct material aid for the families of fallen fighters by raising money for them, and Black people were the main organizers of ‘Martyr Day’ activities in 12 cities on the day Brown was hanged. Events included everything from tolling church bells to businesses closing, from the poisoning of three of the jurors that convicted Brown to the torching of three Virginia plantations.
Given the movement’s response to the raid, it was not a total failure. Representing a more radical tenet of the abolitionist movement, Brown understood quite well that revolution is a process; he said even if the revolt was not militarily successful, it would still be a success in further sparking abolitionist movement. Though it didn’t bring the movement to a new, radical position as hoped, the raid made many abolitionists rethink their views on pacifism. Brown’s raid, like other anti-slavery revolts, gained much publicity, and the image of whites engaged in armed struggle against slavery and white supremacy still terrifies the system. Recognizing the ways in which the raid succeeded helps us counter revisionist history and helps us better analyze our actions. Even when we are not as successful as planned, our work can still be important steps in movement building.
While succeeding in several key aspects, the raid was still hindered by Brown’s racism, patriarchy, patriotism, lack of democracy and Christian fervor.
TOWARD HOLISTIC PRAXIS: A CRITIQUE OF BROWN
Speaking about 150 years after Harper’s Ferry, Malcolm X used Brown’s actions as a litmus test when discussing anti-racist whites. “If a white person wants to help our cause,” Malcolm said, “ask him what he thinks of John Brown. Do you know what John Brown did? He went to war.” Anti-racist whites must go to war against racism – not necessarily through armed struggle, but through their daily life. As white anti-racist feminist Becky Thompson notes in the title of her book on white anti-racism, it is both “a promise and a way of life.” Our war against racism must be multi-faceted: from challenging racist comments to the ways we organize, from our reading selection to being able to provide physical and material aid to people of color. This comes with a holistic politics, one that recognizes the multitude of barriers to freedom and works toward a comprehensive vision.
While Brown was a visionary in anti-racist politics regarding Africans and African Americans, this was not matched with gender consciousness or even a deep understanding on the founding and role of the United States. After meeting Harriet Tubman, Brown was so impressed that, when telling his son of the meeting, Brown described her as “the most man” Brown had ever met.
“Important affairs were manly affairs to him,” Lee says in discussing Brown and Tubman’s relationship. Lee says Brown forbade female participation in the raid and forbade men knowledgeable of the raid to share information with their wives. His misogynistic distrust of women was coupled with patriarchal blinders on the myriad of ways in which women participated in anti-racist struggle, including the planning of Harper’s Ferry. Two of Brown’s daughters were very involved in the planning process, living in Harper’s Ferry for a long time prior to the raid. Having traveled the area extensively when leading slave escapes, Tubman was knowledgeable of the area, and her strategic thinking would have been of immeasurable importance in planning and executing the raid. While illness prevented Tubman from being the only woman to participate in the armed front of the raid, Lee says her priorities lay in leading armed struggle against slavery in her own right. She was not waiting for white people to lead the struggle – she had been actively fighting white supremacy all of her life.
Even though he represented a more radical wing of the abolitionist movement, Brown still failed to challenge state power or the existence of the United States. He supported the creation of an independent Black nation, but failed to incorporate within that a belief in the need to destroy the United States. A parasitic, settler state such as the United States – which, besides African chattel slavery, was founded on genocide of the indigenous, colonization of Mexico and patriarchal social relations, all of which Brown did not recognize or challenge – needs to be destroyed. A truly independent, sovereign and free Black nation cannot exist alongside a settler empire that rests on Black oppression.
Though Brown and other men drafted a “Provisional Constitution of the Oppressed People of the United States” that called for a sovereign Black nation, suffrage regardless of sex and encouraged all women to arm themselves, Brown’s patriarchy and loyalty to the United States made the actualization of this impossible. Saying he intended to gain freedom for Black men like the American Revolution had done for white men, Brown defended the use of the United States flag as the flag for the new nation. The rebellion’s loyalty, Lee says, was with the United States, as Brown sought to “amend and reform” the U.S. constitution rather than overthrow and replace the United States itself. If we are to achieve freedom, our goal must be the destruction of the United States as we know it, not its amending and reformation.
White anti-racist politics must also be universally and consistently anti-racist; it is not up to us to choose which people of color to listen to or support. Brown’s militancy in fighting for abolition and Black liberation – albeit in a patriarchal, patriotic manner – was not matched with principled solidarity for Native, Chicano and Asian people within U.S. borders. The fact that slavery was more at the forefront of public discussion at the time merits its priority, but it also begs the question of genocide, colonization, forced servitude and the public invisibility of non-Black people of color.
Further, while studying the life and legacy of Brown is instructive for anti-racists – particularly white ones – the study of white revolutionaries must not overshadow the study of revolutionaries of color. Radical discourse among anti-racists on the role of whites in anti-racist struggle has largely consensed that white people should be organizing other whites against racism following the leadership of people of color. Yet this was not the case with Brown: while the group he led at Harper’s Ferry was predominantly white, there were several Black people involved, and little is written or studied about them. (Osborne Anderson’s autobiography, A Voice From Harper’s Ferry, the only body of work written by a Black participant in the raid, is also one of the few works dedicated to Black members of the raid.)
While he had principled anti-racist relations with and took guidance from many of the Black radicals of the time – Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney and others – Brown was very much the leader of the groups in which he participated. The lack of democratic structure combined with internal racial hierarchy and patriarchal standards for participation contributed to the failure of Harper’s Ferry and is something anti-racists must not replicate.
To highlight Brown runs the risk of exceptionalizing him as “the good white,” perpetuating the culture of white supremacy. Brown was heavily influenced by the slave revolts, attempted or carried out, by people like Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey, yet more dialogue focuses around Brown then any of these three Black revolutionaries. Vital as studying the processes by which people with privilege fight against their privilege is, the focus of revolutionary anti-racism must remain on revolutionaries of color: their words, actions and influences. The words and actions of self-proclaimed anti-racist whites on racism cannot take sole precedence.
LEARNING FROM HISTORY
Brown remains relevant to white anti-racists because he struggled against racism to his very death. But in studying him, the changing ways in which white supremacy operates must be taken into account. Raiding a federal arsenal to seize weapons is neither possible nor strategic at this time. Many of the problems within the abolitionist movement, however, are alive and well. From white appeals to ‘anti-racism’ for the benefit of white labor to the tokenizing and patronizing view of Third World peoples, reclaiming Brown’s militancy can be a powerful antidote to modern white imperial power within the left.
The power of Brown’s militancy lay not just in his armed deeds, but in making anti-racism a foundation of his being. Brown’s militancy must be applied to all aspects of life and struggle – as militant feminists, as militant anti-capitalists and as militant anti-Americanists; as militant organizers, as militant thinkers and as militant freedom fighters. We must apply that militancy, the willingness to take time, energy and risks – after all, many people do not have the privilege of choosing whether to be militant – in our struggle against hierarchy and for a free society. This happens through praxis, the synthesis of thought and action, not rhetoric. Giving lip service to anti-racism without prioritizing and implementing it is not militant, regardless of the tactics used.
By critically reclaiming Brown, we can acknowledge his faults and celebrate his success. We can counter the dominant historiography that makes Brown and white anti-racism appear to be “crazy.” This pathologizing process is yet another way white supremacy appeals to white people. A critical reclaiming of Brown counteracts this historical revisionism, but the critical analysis is key. From Brown’s achievements and mistakes we learn the necessity to wage militant, principled anti-racist struggle on all fronts. From welfare cutbacks to civil liberties attacks, from border militarization to race-based incarceration, from environmental racism to affirmative action, from education to health care, from colonization to gentrification, there are many sources of struggle. Radicals, especially white ones, must combine a revolutionary vision with a radical analysis and liberatory strategy. It is our job to pick up where John Brown left off.
Special thanks to Eugene Koveos, Heather LaCapria, Matt Meyer and Nicole Solomon for their comments on this article. Dan Berger is a student at the University of Florida, an organizer with the Colors of Resistance collective (part of the Colours of Resistance network) and co-editor of ONWARD.