John Brown’s Body at 160

Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.
Race Traitor, Winter 1999

John Brown and the flag of the Underground Railroad, 1846

Harper’s ferry

160 years ago today, on October 16, 1859, the militant abolitionist John Brown, an important organizer of the Underground Railroad, led a raid of black and white men on Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, hoping to secure the U.S. Armory and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, a strategic weapons depot, to arms enslaved black persons, and to begin an armed revolt that would hopefully spread throughout the Southern U.S.

Brown was to be joined by Harriet Tubman, but she fell ill and could not join him. Thus, with between 19 and 21 men, Brown attacked and held Harper’s Ferry for two days before being overrun by U.S. military forces, capture, tried, and hanged.

Although Brown’s raid was ultimately unsuccessful in the short-run, his legacy as a white anti-racist revolutionary lives on. He remains a model to those of us who endeavor to do the work of white allyship in the struggle against racism, racial capitalism, and the supremacy of whiteness.

John Brown and the grizzled face of revolution

John brown’s body

John Brown, his actions, and his very body became a rallying cry for abolitionists and Union soldiers alike during the Civil War and thereafter, immortalized in songs such as “John Brown’s Body,” written by a battalion of Union troops and based on camp folks tunes. It is best remembered today as the tune to which “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is sung, but the original lyrics, which played on the eponymy of Brown and one of the battalion’s own men of the same name, are striking and powerful in their rendering of abolitionist struggle in the language of Christian martyrdom.

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.

John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.

He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened “Old Virginny” till she trembled thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.

John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thruout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.

The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.

Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.

Lyrics to “John Brown’s Body,” version by William Preston Patton

we don’t need martyrs, we need action

As the song, image above from an 1859 pamphlet announcing John Brown’s death sentence, and the John Steuart Curry painting from 1938 (below) suggest, Brown has become an influential figure for the Christian Left, has been made into a martyr and hero. But in our efforts to achieve the abolition of whiteness and to build a more just, utopian society, we must resist the cult of hero worship and see John Brown as what he was: a man fighting against injustice and a model for anti-racist praxis.

Moreover, it cannot be ignored that though the language places the efforts of freeing enslaved persons squarely on the actions of white men like John Brown, free and enslaved blacks fought for freedom and bore greater costs.

John Steuart Curry. Tragic Prelude (John Brown). 1938.

John Brown’s End

After the failure of his raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown and the surviving raiders were executed.

A note to his guard on the day of his hanging

John Brown’s last words spoke to his regret that change could not be made without shed blood, but recognized that radical social upheaval and revolution were and still are unlikely without violence.


learning about brown

For those interested in learning more about John Brown and his legacy, these books will help. Included here is also Terry Bisson’s alternate history novel Fire on the Mountain, an imagining of what might have been, if Tubman had not fallen ill.