From his obsession with the founding principles of the United States to his cold-blooded killings in the battle over slavery’s expansion, John Brown forced his countrymen to reckon with America’s violent history, its checkered progress toward racial equality, and its resistance to substantive change. Tracing Brown’s legacy through writers and artists like Thomas Hovenden, W. E. B. Du Bois, Robert Penn Warren, Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and others, John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change, by R. Blakeslee Gilpin, transforms Brown from an object of endless manipulation into a dynamic medium for contemporary beliefs about the process and purpose of the American republic.
In this excerpt from chapter 5 of John Brown Still Lives! (pp. 79-81), Gilpin discusses the contested legacy of John Brown between leading figures involved in the founding of the NAACP:
The keynote speaker at the Harpers Ferry Niagara convention in August 1906 was Reverend Reverdy Ransom, but his volatile cofounder of the Niagara Movement, W. E. B. Du Bois, delivered the weekend’s closing speech. The convention was “in significance if not in numbers one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held,” Du Bois wrote in his Autobiography. Congregating at the scene “of John Brown’s raid” was essential, not least for the barefooted “pilgrimage at dawn . . . to the scene of Brown’s martyrdom.” There, Du Bois wrote, “we talked some of the plainest English that had been given voice by black men in America.”
Du Bois’s remarks in August 1906 articulated the goals of his fledgling organization and its intense connections to John Brown. We “believe in John Brown,” Du Bois told the Niagara attendees, “in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right. And here on the scene of John Brown’s martyrdom, we reconsecrate ourselves, our honor, our property to the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free.” As he would do on numerous occasions, Du Bois used John Brown to engage the past as a means to make sense of the present and put forth plans for the future.
During the next three years, Du Bois made dramatic efforts to combine these strategies, publishing what he considered his finest work, a short biography of John Brown, in the fall of 1909. However, Du Bois’s plans for the book’s role in the final emancipation were short-lived; as soon as John Brown appeared in print, it received crushing reviews in The Nation and the New York Evening Post. Oswald Garrison Villard, Du Bois’s eventual NAACP colleague and fellow Brown biographer, wrote these hatchet jobs anonymously. But long before the two men began their respective Brown projects, Du Bois and Villard were far from friends. Their tumultuous relationship and competing portraits of Brown took shape while they helped found the most important black organization in American history, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
These dovetailing narratives underscore the importance of controlling Brown’s memory, an increasingly volatile commodity, particularly as activists began to articulate the needs, desires, and demands of black Americans. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, outwardly progressive philanthropists like Villard frustrated and were frustrated by the opinions and personalities of outspoken blacks like Du Bois. Observed through the prism of John Brown, their story reveals the strategies and conflicts involved in the greater project for racial equality, the longest and most significant struggle in American history. As part of that centuries-long process, the stories of Du Bois and Villard reveal the limits of interracial partnership and understanding, limitations Brown exposed with particular clarity because he forced these men to mesh their reforming impulses with his methods and beliefs. Exploring Du Bois, Villard, and the formational moment of the NAACP also reveals the degree to which each man identified with Brown and appropriated his memory in the service of broad social reform and individual ego.
From John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change by R. Blakeslee Gilpin. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin is visiting assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. He is a past fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and at the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Du Bois, Autobiography, 249.↩
- Ibid., 251.↩
- Smith, “Introduction,” xxi.↩
- Julie Husband explores Du Bois’s vision of Brown and his teleology of African American heroes and socialist politics in “W. E. B. Du Bois’s John Brown” but spends little time discussing Villard. Louis DeCaro, in “Black People’s Ally, White People’s Bogeyman,” takes a historiographical approach, contrasting several racially inspired approaches to Brown, including those of Du Bois and Villard.↩