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John Brown



John Brown deserves brighter light




May 22, 2009 - Lake Placid, NY


On Saturday, May 9, a tall, regal African-American man quietly laid a wreath in front of John Brown's grave, just outside the Village of Lake Placid. He was Roy Innis, the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that has played a pivotal role in the civil-rights movement, a movement that has as one of its greatest successes the election of the first African-American as president, an idea deemed near impossible a few decades ago.

Michelle Obama, the most popular first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, is a descendant of slaves. John Brown opened the doors so her ancestors could be free. He led an integrated band of men to Harper's Ferry 150 years ago in an attack on the federal arsenal there and put in motion a chain of events that ultimately broke open the door of freedom closed to the 4 million Americans who were living in chains, lashed by the whip, raped, torn from their families and forced to work without pay so others might benefit from their labors.

John Brown was a man of faith. The Bible taught him that slavery, rape and whipping of others was a sin. His own ancestors fought for freedom from the tyranny of the British. He learned from childhood that sometimes a sword had to be raised for freedom as it was to create our own nation just 25 years before his own birth. He believed that the Declaration of Independence was the second-most important document ever written. He believed in its vision that all men were equal under the law and under the eyes of God.

John Brown was recognized as an expert tanner and one of the foremost experts in the production of wool in the country. He survived one of the most brutal economic depressions our nation has ever faced without losing the faith of his sponsors and friends. He and his wife gave up potential economic security to move to North Elba to live alongside free black settlers and teach them what they knew about living off the land.

John Brown was a man of action. He was not one to sit idly by and do nothing to stop the spread of slavery. Did he fight fire with fire in Kansas? Yes, and, as a result, Kansas joined the Union as a free state. For that, he received a hero's welcome by many throughout the Northeast within the abolitionist movement.

John Brown was a complex man. While much of the picture we have of him was painted by slave owners, along with bankers and business owners who profited from slavery, there is no question that he attacked the United States government because it sanctioned the institution of slavery. He inspired an amazing range of people and movements ranging from non-violent advocates like Henry David Thoreau and Dr. King to those who practiced violence, like the Weathermen and Unabomber, the latter of which does not make his own efforts to better the lives of others less valid.

It seems sad to me that there is only one road dedicated to John Brown in the United States (in North Elba) and the only other in our hemisphere in Haiti. It seems odd to me that there is no John Brown Professorship or endowed chair for civil rights at SUNY Plattsburgh. It seems sad to me that only 70 people were with Roy Innis on the 9th at the John Brown State Historic Site and sadder still that no paper, radio station or television network reported on the event.

We have an opportunity this year to learn more about John Brown, to engage students in schools across this region in dialogue, to work together to re-enact his cortege home this December across Lake Champlain, lying in state at the courthouse in Elizabethtown and memorial at his farm. We have the opportunity through him to look at our own dark sides, and side of light, that are intertwined in each of us, and use them to see him as the complicated man he was who rose above his own many demons to lift others out of slavery. Let us not waste that opportunity.

Naj Wikoff is coordinator of John Brown Coming Home, 150th Commemoration, Lake Placid. He can be reached at johnbrowncominghome@lakeplacid.com.





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