Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Thank You John Brown


Today marks the 150 anniversary of the execution of John Brown, that 19th century martyr for what today would be referred to as "anti-racism". The New York Times has a beautifully written piece about this remarkable American:

"Today is the 150th anniversary of Brown’s hanging — the grim punishment for his raid weeks earlier on Harpers Ferry, Va. With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured. He was brought to trial in a Virginia court, convicted of treason, murder and inciting an insurrection, and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.

It’s a date we should hold in reverence. Yes, I know the response: Why remember a misguided fanatic and his absurd plan for destroying slavery?

There are compelling reasons. First, the plan was not absurd. Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

Second, he was held in high esteem by many great men of his day. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had 'come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.' " (Read the whole thing here)

The Harper's Ferry raid has particular resonance for me because research done by my father's side of the family suggests that a relative may have been among the young men who followed "Captain Brown".

I am also reminded of 'Abdu'l-Baha's encouragement of African Americans during an address at Howard University in 1912, to show gratitude to those whites who fought and sacrificed for our freedom.

"How they fought and sacrificed until they freed the blacks!.. It was for your sake that the whites of America made such an effort...you must be very thankful to the whites who were the cause of your freedom in America." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 45)

In this spirit I say, thank you John Brown for your life and your death. Thank you for showing America the inevitable consequences of the color line. Thank you for demonstrating the power of principles put into action. Thank you for fighting so that my ancestors could be free. Your truth is marching on.

O my God! O my God! Verily, thy servant, humble before the majesty of Thy divine supremacy, lowly at the door of Thy oneness, hath believed in Thee and in Thy verses, hath testified to Thy word, hath been enkindled with the fire of Thy love, hath been immersed in the depths of the ocean of Thy knowledge, hath been attracted by Thy breezes, hath relied upon his supplications to Thee, and hath been assured of Thy pardon and forgiveness. He hath abandoned this mortal life and hath flown to the kingdom of immortality, yearning for the favor of meeting Thee.

O Lord, glorify his station, shelter him under the pavilion of Thy supreme mercy, cause him to enter Thy glorious paradise, and perpetuate his existence in Thine exalted rose garden, that he may plunge into the sea of light in the world of mysteries.

Verily, Thou art the Generous, the Powerful, the Forgiver and the Bestower.

- 'Abdu'l-Bahá