Abolitionist John Brown's iconic image — wild-eyed, arms outstretched holding a rifle and a Bible — isn't the singular one featured in an upcoming exhibit at the Kansas African American Museum.
The museum also is incorporating photos of a solemn Brown and information better reflecting his hero status and his standing as one of American history's most misunderstood men. We hope to have the exhibit up in time for Black History Month in February.
The museum joins David Reynolds, author of an acclaimed Brown biography, "John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights," in seeking a pardon for Brown, executed for treason in 1859. Reynolds proposed the idea this month in a New York Times commentary.
Brown saw slavery with a clarity now clouded by revisionism. The diaries of slave makers — the men who broke the will of kidnapped Africans in the Caribbean before delivering them to American slave owners — explain why Brown raided Harpers Ferry in Virginia to arm a slave rebellion. Slave makers wrote of torturing pregnant wives in front of husbands to intimidate both, hoping the baby would enter the world afraid, as footnoted in the book "Malcolm X on U.S. History."
Would pardoning Brown mean honoring a madman and terrorist?
James Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me," wrote that Virginia Gov. Henry Wise called Brown "a man of clear head," and said he had "consecutive reasoning" and "composure and self-possession."
Wise said: "They are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman."
Loewen wrote that Brown knew his raid might fail but told abolitionist Frederick Douglass its impact would resound. And if Brown was crazy, so was celebrated Underground Railroad engineer Harriet Tubman. Only illness prevented her participation that day.
Brown had bloody hands, but slavery and its child, Jim Crow, constituted this country's most pervasive example of domestic terrorism. That bastard child grew into the monster that across decades posed smiling in photos of lynched black men and that cowardly killed four little girls in a Sunday school classroom in Birmingham, Ala.
Loewen quoted author Henry David Thoreau's eulogy of Brown: "It seems as if no man had ever died in America before, for in order to die, you must first have lived."
Ignorance and imagery often trump truth and complexity in history. Consider, for example, how many people still fly Confederate flags despite this statement in Loewen's book from Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy: "Our new government's foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition."
Conversely, when executioners told Brown that a minister could accompany him to the gallows, he said he'd rather die alongside a slave woman and her children. He lived among black people and wanted them integrated into society.
We honor Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" declaration, though Brown's actions measure more nobly. Brown sacrificed liberty and life for others. "John Brown's Body" was the original name of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The Kansas African American Museum's exhibition will reflect this history — which should resonate loudly here in the great state of Kansas, where we stand on the right side of history.