By TJ Edouard, Columnist
A 100 and 50 years ago this month, John Brown was sentenced to death by hanging for executing an ineffective slave rebellion. On Oct. 16, Brown, accompanied by 21 other men, apprehended the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. The men sought to retrieve weapons to give to others to spark a superior revolt. However, their advantage didn't last long; the United States Marines, under the authority of the notorious Col. Robert E. Lee, were able to salvage the armory.
By the end of these events, ten of Brown's companions lay dead--including two of his sons. The other men either fled or were captured and later killed. After being imprisoned, Brown is known for holding his composure until his execution, despite the failure of the rebellion and death of his sons. Persistently, he claimed that his actions were religiously motivated and that it was God's will America be free from the sin of slavery.
These affairs make John Brown one of the most controversial men in our nation's history. Abraham Lincoln would go on to refer to him as a "misguided fanatic," a title often shared with another revolutionist, the slave Nat Turner, a few decades before him. Brown's actions aggravated the way pro-slavers and abolitionists viewed each other. However, John Brown represents the few white Americans who were able to invest more than empty words into the abolitionist movement; he invested his life. With a similar spirit, other Americans sheltered runaway slaves in their homes in the networks of the Underground Railroad.
Though this is what we frequently hear about once Black History Month begins, it wasn't a vast movement within abolitionist circles. It is a common misconception that all abolitionists felt African slaves was worth fighting for, or even human. Brown represented a small few who put their philosophy into action.
Brown often polarizes opinion even until today. Some refer to him as a martyr, while others brand him as a terrorist. Last week, The New York Times called the raid at Harper's Ferry the "9/11 of 1859," while other media outlets praised Brown's intentions. I feel that John Brown represents the beauty of American courage better than any war folktale or presidential urban legend. Though it could be argued that John Brown aggravated the situation more than he actually helped slaves, doesn't that hint that the actual problem was the societal system? John Brown was able to see centuries ahead of his time and beheld a society in which race didn't play a significant role in determining the worth of a man. It takes little for someone to be able to kill for something, but it takes a hero to be able to die for it. Though the raid at Harper's Ferry was violent, John Brown recognized the need of aggression as a counter-strike to oppression. This recognition resurfaced in the civil rights movement when certain leaders, most notably Malcolm X, decided the proper way to fight violence was in fact, with retaliation.
Noticeably, no slave rebellion ever ended the institution of slavery; emancipation was eventually achieved through the means of Union executive orders. Yet, John Brown's legacy is very important to examine in the post-civil rights era. I believe Brown represents the quintessential American hero--the pejorative of "terrorist" or "fanatic" should not be used to describe this man, when he deserves words like "freedom fighter" or "martyr." He is a great example of an individual with an idea and his fight for what the beliefs that man are made inherently equal. Brown reminds us that we can't sit there and wait for things to change; we have to be a part of the change.