DuBois and Gregory on John Brown

John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, as illustrated in James Redpath,
The Life of Captain John Brown (1860). source: Wikimedia

Sunday (October 16) is the 163rd anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. The (in)famous raid has been the subject of many scholarly books; powerful novels by Russell Banks and James McBride; poems by Walt Whitman, Stephen Vincent Benét, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and others; and famous paintings by John Steuart Curry and Jacob Lawrence. Brown has been praised yet criticized by the opponents of slavery and excoriated by Confederate partisans since the 1850s.

Here is what W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his 1909 biography of Brown (published as part of the American Crisis Biographies series):

When a prophet like John Brown appears, how must we of the world receive him? Must we follow out the drear, dread logic of surrounding facts, as did the South, even if they crucify a clean and pure soul, simply because consistent allegiance to our cherished, chosen ideal demands it? If we do, the shame will brand our latest history. Shall we hesitate and waver before his clear white logic, now helping, now fearing to help, now believing, now doubting? Yes, this we must do so long as the doubt and hesitation are genuine; but we must not lie. If we are human, we must thus hesitate until we know the right. How shall we know it? That is the Riddle of the Sphinx. We are but darkened groping souls, that know not light often because of its very blinding radiance. Only in time is truth revealed. To-day at last we know: John Brown was right. …

“Slavery is wrong,” he said,—“kill it.” Destroy it—uproot it, stem, blossom, and branch; give it no quarter, exterminate it and do it now. Was he wrong? No. The forcible staying of human uplift by barriers of law, and might, and tradition is the most wicked thing on earth. It is wrong, eternally wrong. It is wrong, by whatever name it is called, or in whatever guise it lurks, and whenever it appears. But it is especially heinous, black, and cruel when it masquerades in the robes of law and justice and patriotism. … John Brown taught us that the cheapest price to pay for liberty is its cost to-day.

We’ll save the last word for the late comedian and activist Dick Gregory. In 2013, he participated in a ceremony at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in upstate New York, where he declared

Every year on my birthday October 12th I go to Harper’s Ferry, and every 2nd of December I go to Charles Town, West Virginia and hug the tree next to where John Brown was hung. I hug the tree for the white man who gave up his life for a black man. John Brown took his two sons with him. Then the whole world changed thanks to John Brown. I came here to say thank you.