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Panel: John Brown died for freedom

December 7, 2009
By NATHAN BROWN, Enterprise Staff Writer

LAKE PLACID - All six of the panelists at the High Peaks Resort Saturday agreed that John Brown's legacy is a positive one, of being willing to risk it all in the fight for freedom.

J.W. Wiley, director of the Center for Diversity, Pluralism and Inclusion at SUNY Plattsburgh, said Brown became one of his heroes later in life, after Wiley had moved to the North Country and learned about Brown from Martha Swan, a teacher at Newcomb Central School and director of John Brown Lives!

"He was a white man who died for black people," Wiley said. "Would I risk my life for gays and lesbians? How far would I go for women? He upped the ante for me."

Article Photos

Bernadine Dohrn, left, was one of the panelists at a discussion of abolitionist John Brown’s legacy at the High Peaks Resort in Lake Placid Saturday. Author Russell Banks, of Keene, moderated.
(Enterprise photo — Nathan Brown)

Kevin Bales, president of the anti-slavery group Free the Slaves, said he deals with the dilemmas faced by Brown in his anti-slavery work throughout the world. Bales said he is a Quaker and opposes violence, but he often deals with slaves who want to kill their former masters.

"If you face a state apparatus which is unmovable and uses violence to crush any opposition, I understand perfectly the logic, though I can't apply it myself," Bales said.

Russell Banks, of Keene, author of the novel "Cloudsplitter" about John Brown, moderated the panel, which was one of numerous commemorative events being held to mark the 150th anniversary of the radical abolitionist's attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, (now W.) Va. and his subsequent trial, hanging, and burial at his farm in North Elba.

Although the panelists agreed Brown is a hero, not everyone holds this view, and this is not what you'll find in many history textbooks.

"I grew up with a memory, in my history class in the Midwest, of a beady-eyed fanatic," said panelist Bernadine Dohrn.

Dohrn said she and many other young white people developed a more positive view of Brown in the 1960s, identifying him with the political struggles going on at the time. Dohrn became a leader of the Weather Underground, a violent revolutionary group active in the U.S. during the 1970s.

Alice Keesey Mecoy, Brown's great-great-great-granddaughter, only found out about her relation to Brown when she was 16. Her family didn't talk about the connection after moving to California in the 1860s, and Mecoy is the only Brown descendant involved in the commemoration activities. She lives in Texas and said she was picketed when she gave a presentation on Brown there in February.

"I am in a minority where I live, because I think John Brown is the good guy," Mecoy said.

George Holmes, executive director and chief operating officer of the Congress on Racial Equality, said he came to Lake Placid for several years to lay a wreath on Brown's grave on his birthday, May 9. He never saw anyone else there until last year, when he ran into Naj Wikoff, of Keene Valley, head of John Brown Coming Home, which has organized the commemorative activities in this area.


New York Times articles

The Dec. 2 New York Times carried two opinion pieces about Brown. One, by Tony Horowitz, called him "the most successful terrorist in American history." It compared him to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the accused architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, while also acknowledging differences between the two men, their causes and tactics. The other, by David S. Reynolds, called him "a forward-thinking man dedicated to the freedom and political participation of African-Americans" and called for his pardon.

Banks asked the panelists for their reactions to both pieces. All of them disagreed with Horowitz's article, with Bales saying there is a difference between attacking civilians and a military arsenal.

Dohrn called Horowitz's piece a "transparently dreadful article," but "it does say what a certain subsection of the American population thinks."

Dohrn defined and condemned terrorism as massive assaults on civilian populations and said calling Brown's actions terrorism ignores the brutal reality of slavery, which was legal at the time, and is an attempt to delegitimize struggles for freedom and reinforce the state's monopoly on the use of force.

"There was terrorism at the time of John Brown," said Margaret Washington, an African-American history and culture teacher at Cornell University. "The terrorism was slavery. It wasn't what John Brown did."

Washington also blasted the focus of many of Brown's critics on the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas, an 1856 incident where Brown and a band of abolitionists killed five pro-slavery Kansas settlers. Washington said people from all over the South were flooding Kansas at the time to make it a pro-slavery state, scalping, raping and killing abolitionist settlers.

"We're talking about lawlessness," Washington said. "The way people focus on John Brown as if he is some kind of anomaly is historically inaccurate."

The panelists didn't necessarily think Brown should be pardoned, though, as a pardon could imply forgiveness for a wrongful act.

"Pardoning him for what? For being a freedom fighter?" Washington said.

"I don't care whether he's pardoned or not," Wiley said. "I don't need the U.S. government to validate this man's actions."

Holmes said an apology, rather than a pardon, would make sense.


Brown's relevance today

"John Brown risked his life, his family and fortune, and gave his life for ending slavery, but slavery hasn't ended," Bales said.

Bales said people in the developing world in particular still risk and sometimes give their lives to end slavery, and he said he hopes "the virus of the ideas of John Brown will spread from Martha (Swan) to millions of people."

Dohrn said most people would like to think they would have done something to fight slavery if they lived during that period, but there are injustices going on today that we accept, that our grandchildren will wonder why we didn't fight. Dohrn is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, and she said she sees the U.S. criminal justice system as "the immediate legacy of slavery." An audience member thanked her for bringing this up, noting that 600,000 people released from prison every year often can't vote and many employers won't hire them.

Wikoff has called for conferences on John Brown, and Holmes said the Congress on Racial Equality has agreed to host one in New York City.

"Each one, teach one," Wiley said. "We need to make something happen with this."


Contact Nathan Brown at 891-2600 ext. 26 or



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