Police-involved shootings of African Americans have produced cultural unrest, and have likewise led to the establishment of organizations such as Black Lives Matter. More prominently of late, thousands of Americans have taken to the streets in several major cities to protest the results of the recent election, out of fear that due to his racially charged comments and questionable personal associations with members of the so-called "alt-right" unearthed throughout the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump does not have the interests of minority groups in mind.
In most cases, protests and other organized public events have been peaceful, but in some noteworthy instances, crowds have resorted to violence toward private citizens and law enforcement officials.
On Oct. 16, 1859, the fiery New England-born abolitionist John Brown incited his now-famous raid at Harpers Ferry in modern-day West Virginia. In doing so, Brown and his compatriots immediately catapulted emancipation to the forefront of the American conscience and placed Brown forever on the pages of national memory.
Brown’s ultimate goal was to bring violence to slavery’s southern heartland, and thereby forcibly provide freedom to millions of people then being held in bondage. In hindsight, though he did not immediately accomplish this objective, the actions of Brown and his small army that October night influenced Americans of all political stripes, and to some extent, hastened the country to its bloody civil war 17 months later. It was Brown, after all, who while awaiting his public hanging hauntingly (though accurately) predicted "that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood."
For this reason, historian David Blight has noted, discussions over whether Brown was “a midnight terrorist or a revolutionary hero” are valid arguments to have, even 150-plus years after the event. To some, according to Blight, Brown is “a monster,” while to others, “he’s a warrior saint,” because while he “used violence,” he “killed for justice.” To many Americans, this contrast has remained both “disturbing and inspiring.”
Rather, that day 30-year-old Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged those who were “morally right” to become “maladjusted until the good society is achieved.” While he began by stating that he felt the centenary of Brown’s raid was an appropriate “occasion to discuss in objective and reasoned terms, this all important matter of civil rights,” King never again mentioned Brown for the remainder of his oration.
Instead, for the next several minutes King discussed his conception of the “three distinct periods in the history of race relations in this country” (which he termed “slavery,” “restricted emancipation,” and “constructive integration”), pleaded for desegregation throughout the South, and, most noteworthy of all, advocated for “nonviolent resistance.”
“It is my great hope that as the negro plunges deeper into the quest for freedom, he will plunge deeper into the philosophy of nonviolence,” noted King. “As a race we must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship, but we must never use second class methods to gain it.”
Generally, King was unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, alike. Some others in the civil rights community—even those who were typically peace-loving—had fondly looked back on Brown and spoke favorably of his mission, but King refused to do so.
Likewise, Frederick Douglass, a 19th-century equal rights advocate who was himself a former slave, proudly stated in 1881 that Brown had no choice but to “begin the war that ended slavery,” and that “his zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine….I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.” In Douglass’ opinion, “The time for compromises was gone—the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union—and the clash of arms was at hand.”
And W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), noted in 1909, “John Brown worked not simply for Black Men—he worked with them…and felt, as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot.” Brown was, wrote Du Bois, “the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” Moreover, said Du Bois, Brown’s actions and declarations “did more to shake the foundations of slavery than any single thing that ever happened in America.”
“I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob-rule…,” declared King during his Minnesota address. “I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.”
In King’s words, the key to resolving the racial strife of his time was to follow the examples set not by John Brown, but by historic figures like Abraham Lincoln, “who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free” and used his status as president to work within the system and suppress this dichotomy; like Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence contained “words lifted to cosmic proportions”; and like Jesus Christ, “who dared to dream a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men.” These historic figures, King said, were all positively “maladjusted” to the norms of their respective times, and therefore held the “salvation of the world” in their hands.
Just as they did throughout the antislavery and civil rights eras of the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, respectively, Americans must look inward and ask themselves how they are to collectively resolve issues of political, societal, and racial unrest in the 21st century.
Brown’s actions and King’s words offer templates of previous generations’ responses to these questions, and therefore must be studied and understood now as much as ever.