On the morning of December 2nd, 1859, abolitionist fighter John Brown was hanged. One of the leaders of the left-wing abolitionist movement and participant in the Underground Railroad, Brown came to realize that the institution of slavery could not be ended by peaceful means, and that such oppression had to be fought with force. He formed a militia of black and white people dedicated to striking against slaveholders in the hopes of sparking a slave uprising and insurrection to overthrow slavery in the United States.
In 1855-56, Brown organized successful armed struggles against slaveowners and pro-slavery militias in Bleeding Kansas. He planned to create a Free Republic in the Allegheny Mountains as a base for the fight against slavery, even composing a draft provisional constitution. Brown and 18 of his men raided a federal armory in Harper’s Ferry on Oct. 16, 1859, meaning to use the weapons to arm slaves, but the raid failed. Brown’s men were almost completely annihilated by U.S. Marines commanded by Robert E. Lee, as well as pro-slavery farmers and militiamen. Two of Brown’s sons were killed and Brown himself was wounded and captured.
In his speech to the court at his trial and sentencing, John Brown spoke these powerful words:
“Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), — had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends – either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class – and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. […] Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”
After his trial and execution, John Brown went down in history as a martyr and a fighter for liberation. Brown’s rebellion immediately preceded the American Civil War of 1861-65, and was one of the first open challenges to slavery.
John Brown’s legacy lies with millions of people who have given their lives to struggle against human bondage, against crushing systems of stratification, and against the gravest crimes of exploitation.