I just saw an old show on youtube I remembered fondly from when I was a kid, The Great Adventure—one of the few shows on TV in the 60s that teachers could recommend to their students. Each week was a dramatization of something from American history that was really worth watching: Harriet Tubman in action or a physician’s battle to convince people of the safety of smallpox vaccinations. There were several episodes I remembered quite well, but the one I watched last week was new to me: John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Here’s the link. It featured none other than Jack Klugman who went on to star in the Odd Couple with Tony Randall. Despite Klugman’s New York City accent (Brown was raised in Ohio), he made an excellent John Brown, with his Old Testament beard and piercing eyes. Brown believed God had a plan for him: to start a slave insurrection that would strike fear into the hearts of all Southerners.
Brown failed, as everyone knows, but “his truth goes marching on” and that truth is that slavery is an evil that no civilized people should accept. That so many in the South believed that blacks were actually happy in their bondage only goes to show how easily we can blind ourselves. This of course is exactly the problem of the supporters of the Confederate flag today who claim it’s just a harmless symbol of Southern heritage, like the Eiffel Tower is to the Parisian. They have failed to see the other side’s point that the flag is the symbol of white supremacy. We see what we want to see until we have it rubbed in our face.
The Harpers Ferry raid is a great subject for a humanities class. When we think about Brown’s goal of ending slavery, we applaud, but was he right to use arms to attain that goal? Is it ever right to take up arms against a government that systematizes harm to a portion of its people? And not just harm—rape, torture, and a thousand sources of mental anguish, including ruthlessly tearing families apart? What alternatives were there? What if Brown’s raid had succeeded and the slaves had come rushing to him for arms as he hoped, then marched south either killing their masters or making them flee until the whole South was liberated? Would those deaths have been justified, in the face of the daily torture and death slaves endured at that time?
According to the show, Brown believed in the end that God had not betrayed him, that by making him a martyr He was gearing the North up to complete the work of freeing the slaves. It would be wonderful if, 150 years later, we could say we are free from this kind of thinking, but no, we see it more than ever….in the maelstrom that used to be called the Middle East where all the warring factions in all the warring countries are convinced that God is on their side, in the Vatican of course where God speaks to the pontiff and prelates, telling these men exactly what is right and wrong, and in our own country where half the country is convinced that they know what God wants of us.