John Brown’s Body

If I had lived in the time of John Brown, I wonder what I would have done.

On Oct. 16, 1859 “Captain” John Brown, led a small column of men consisting of 16 Whites, three free Blacks, one freed slave and one fugitive slave on what was tactically an unsuccessful attack, but which hastened the onset of the Civil War, and the end of what was delicately referred to as America’s “Peculiar Institution.”

John Brown was a bold captain, a role model for Brother Malcolm X and militant North Carolina NAACP leader Robert Williams (author of Negroes With Guns, published in 1962), among others.

Just about 100 years before Bob Williams and Brother Malcolm first saw the light and struck out on their own courses to bring liberation to Black people in America, Capt. Brown led small groups of volunteers during the Bloody Kansas border war in 1856.

John Brown called for violent action in response to Southern, slaveholder aggression against the abolition movement. “These men are all talk,” Brown reportedly said of his contemporaries. “What we need is action – action!” He was no pacifist.

When his raiders launched his boldest attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia)–for which he is remembered, and canonized in songs and anthems–the first casualty, ironically was a Black man, a train baggage handler named Hayward Shepherd who challenged the liberators.

His plan was to strike that arsenal, liberate its weapons so he could arm a cadre of slaves, whom he believed would rise up and join his rebellion, in order to free themselves from the shackles of servitude slavery.

When word of the capture of the arsenal by Brown and his men reached Washington, President James Buchanan ordered a column of Marines led by none other than then Col. Robert E. Lee to put down the insurrection and restore federal authority.

Within three days the raid was put down and Brown was captured. He was tried in nearby Charles Town, and on found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. On Dec. 2, 1859 Capt. John Brown was hanged, an execution that was witnessed by none other than John Wilkes Booth, the actor, who five and a half years later assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

If you had lived in the time of John Brown and Robert E. Lee and John Wilkes Booth, which side would you have been on?

I’ve always had affection for the words and the melody of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The melody became a Union marching song during the Civil War, under the title: John Brown’s Body.” Poets Julia Ward Howe, and Stephen Vincent Benét both wrote epic verses in honor of the man, who was denounced by the conventional leadership of the day as a “madman.”

“Old John Brown’s body is a-mouldering in the dust,

“Old John Brown’s rifle is red with blood-spots turned to rust,

“Old John Brown’s pike has made its last, unflinching thrust,

“His soul is marching on!”

But my personal favorite lyrics are:

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

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

“His soul goes marching on.

“He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord.

“He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,

“His soul goes marching on.”

I want to be in that Army.

If you had lived in the time of John Brown and Robert E. Lee and John Wilkes Booth, which side would you have been on?

I’ve been to Harper’s Ferry to that sacred ground, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the meeting held there by the Black founders of the NAACP. My eyes filled with tears there. The next year they met with Whites in their group, and because no one in this country would accommodate a group of Blacks and Whites together at that time, they went to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side and became known as the Niagara Movement.

On Oct. 16, 1995, 136 years after the Harper’s Ferry Raid led by John Brown, Louis Farrakhan convened the Million Man March. I was there that day with 2 million other men.

If you had lived in the time of John Brown and Robert E. Lee and John Wilkes Booth, which side would you have been on?

Long live the spirit of John Brown!

Long live the spirit of the Million Man March!

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