Abolitionist John Brown commemorated

    150 years ago Wednesday, John Brown was executed for crimes against his country. Now the federal government is honoring him with portraits in the National Archive.

    150 years ago Wednesday, John Brown was executed for crimes against his country. Now the federal government is honoring him with portraits in the National Archive.

    150 years ago this Wednesday, John Brown was hanged in Virginia. This week several events in Philadelphia commemorate the fiery 19th century abolitionist, who was prepared to kill – and be killed – to end slavery. Which is exactly what happened. People across the political spectrum are rallying around this divisive figure.

    [audio: 091130pcbrown.mp3]

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    80 years after John Brown was hanged, a mural was painted at the Kansas capital. It shows Brown as a giant, towering over the Confederate army to his left and the Union army to his right. His eyes are as wild as his beard – he carries a bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. To some he looks impassioned, to others he looks nuts.

    The Governor looks at the State Capital and sees this mural every day.

    That’s Larry Robin, former owner of Robin’s Books in Philadelphia. When he started organizing events around the sesquicentennial of John Brown’s execution, he found himself talking to people he never would have otherwise.

    I come from the far left – the Union League doesn’t, Cliveden House doesn’t. Other people see this as piece of American history – not with the moral or political connotations I put on it.

    John Brown was a white Calvinist for whom slavery was the sum of all that is evil, and he resolved to eradicate it at any cost. In 1959 his band of guerillas attacked a federal weapons depot in Harper’s Ferry – in what is now West Virginia – with intention to arm a slave rebellion. He was captured, tried, and hanged within six weeks.

    His body was transported through Philadelphia on its way to New York for burial. Racial tension in Philadelphia was high at the time. V. Chapman-Smith of the National Archives says the mayor at the time used a decoy to avoid a riot.

    The body came to the train station, but they switched it out at the train station. The real coffin went one direction, and the one they followed down the street was empty.

    It wasn’t easy to be a Brown supporter in 1859, especially if you were black. Chapman-Smith says the Mother Bethel A.M.E. church decided it was too risky to hold a vigil for John Brown.

    There were race riots – parts of the black community was set on fire, orphanages burned, churches burned. Mother Bethel – the largest black church decided not to hold a vigil because of the history of churches being burned.

    Almost immediately John Brown became a rallying point for the Union during the Civil War. A folk song about him emerged…

    John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave…

    Eventually all reference to John Brown were washed from the lyrics as the tune morphed into the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the North’s anthem of the Civil War.

    In the long view of history, many believe the abolition of slavery trumps the 600 thousand soldiers who died in the Civil War. Still, even as Brown’s anti-slavery stance is honored, his tactics remain controversial. When his biographer, David Reynolds, describes the plan at Harper’s Ferry 150 years ago, it sounds like it was ripped from today’s headlines about the Taliban, or Osama Bin Laden.

    He attacked Harper’s Ferry with the idea of escaping to the mountains with groups of emancipated blacks and move southward, using mountains as defense against troops, to stir up things in the south and create panic, he hoped to destabilize the South and eradicate slavery.

    The image of John Brown using any means necessary to achieve what he perceives is morally right has been adopted by a wide range of people, from presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth to Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. More recently, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McViegh was a fan of Brown, as are some abortion foes who sanction the use of violence against abortion doctors.

    Larry Robin – the bookstore owner – quotes Malcolm X.

    Robin: Any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom in the sight of other whites…he’s nuts.” That’s why he’s a lunatic – that’s why he is a symbol of white participation in freedom struggles of all people. He went beyond race – it’s the principle of equality and freedom.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal