Dowell: John Brown was forgotten Civil Rights hero

Published 1:51 am Saturday, February 11, 2017


We have heard of Nat Turner, the black slave insurrectionist, who struck a deadly blow against the institution of slavery, but few in the African American community realize that Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry to an extent contributed to this country’s Civil War.

We know that Nat Turner believed that he had been called by God to do something important against the institution of slavery. Nat was indeed strange. Believing in signs and hearing divine voices, he thought that a February 1831 solar eclipse was a sign from God for him to take a stance against the institution of slavery.

Believing that God would protect him and that his actions were providentially approved, on Aug. 21, 1831, Turner led a violent rebellion, killing more than 55 slave owners, their wives and children. The chaos ended with his death in a town called, of all places, Jerusalem, Virginia. Nat Turner felt that the eclipse was a sign from God for him to strike a significant blow to slavery. The reality is that the eclipse was going to occur anyway.

But back to John Brown. Novelist Bruce Olds (Raising Holy Hell: A Novel of John Brown, 1996), described Brown as fanatical, monomaniacal, a zealot, and psychologically unbalanced. Because Brown was on the opposing side of slavery, Southerners and some Northerners after his attack on Harper’s Ferry called him a terrorist that needed to be exterminated as an example to others who might be similarly disposed.

These unflattering labels were immaterial to Brown who practiced and advocated armed insurrection as a means to end all slavery. Here was a man that had declared bankruptcy at age 42, with more than 20 lawsuits against him, in the face of unimaginable financial ruination proselytizing to anyone who would listen that to enslave another human being was against God’s will. In fact, in and around 1855 Brown and his sons moved to Kansas shortly after the debate over the expansion of slavery in the territory, pursuant to the Kansas- Nebraska Act. Shortly afterwards, Brown, with four of his sons and two accomplices murdered five proslavery settlers. Justifying his actions as being obedient to the will of God, Brown quickly became a hero in the eyes of northern extremists and was quick to capitalize on his growing reputation.

Abolitionists knew that the emancipation of slaves could not be peacefully done.  His violent approach, therefore, was acceptable to other abolitionists and to his financial supporters. Believing that he was acting in alignment with God’s wishes, Brown in early 1859, rented a farm near Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) to plan an attack against the institution of slavery that would have unintended consequences in contributing to the Civil War. Brown had initially asked Harriet Tubman (Underground Railroad fame) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass whom he knew to join him. Tubman was ill and unable to oblige Brown, but Douglass declined because he believed his plan would fail and become a suicide mission. After a short period of planning and gathering weapons needed for the attack, on October 16, 1859 Brown and his motley group of 21 followers successfully took control of the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry.

Their control, however, was short-lived. He was defeated and captured by a company of US Marines commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee. Brown was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. As he was being led to his execution he paused to kiss a black child.

A researcher in referring to Brown states that he was “a bad tactician, a bad strategist, a bad planner, and not a very good general, but he was certainly not crazy.”

William Lloyd Garrison, another famous abolitionist, wrote in his abolitionist paper, the Liberator, that “John Brown’s raid was God’s method of dealing retribution upon the head of the tyrant.”

In doing so, Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry certainly are deserving of his being considered and remembered as an unlikely, and oftentimes forgotten, Civil Rights hero who sacrificed his life, in the name of God, so that others could be free.


Dr. Glenn Dowell is an author and columnist who currently lives in Jonesboro, Georgia. He has been a guest speaker on major college campuses , including having appeared on TV programs such as the Oprah Winfrey Show. He may be reached at