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John Brown's legacy hasn't changed; America has

Associated Press | 6/17/2009, 6:40 a.m.
This 1857 file photo shows John Brown, leader of the historic raid on the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Brown, an abolitionist, and his followers attempted to bring attention to the plight of slaves in the United States, using armed force in the raid, which took place on Oct. 16, 1859. AP

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This 1857 file photo shows John Brown, leader of the historic raid on the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Brown, an abolitionist, and his followers attempted to bring attention to the plight of slaves in the United States, using armed force in the raid, which took place on Oct. 16, 1859.

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — A century and a half later, we still don’t know quite what to think of John Brown.

Certainly, he aimed to be a hero. He believed his plan was the necessary means to a righteous end: Storm a federal arsenal, seize thousands of weapons, arm a gathering guerrilla force and start the revolution that would end the morally reprehensible and perfectly legal institution of slavery.

Yet the first casualty of his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry was a free black man, a baggage handler who bled to death on the street while Brown’s raiders grabbed hostages and holed up at a fire engine house.

Within 48 hours, Brown’s rebellion was dead, along with at least four civilians, 10 raiders and a U.S. Marine who helped retake the building.

Brown’s methods have been debated ever since, the grandiosity of his plot and his willingness to kill or be killed a timeless fascination. This year, the National Park Service has declared that his raid was the opening salvo in the War Between the States, with sesquicentennial commemorations beginning in West Virginia.

But in 1959, as America began to contemplate the centennial of the Civil War, Brown was largely left out of the discussion.

Segregation of schools and public lynchings still made headlines, and many white Southerners feared civil rights activists would use retold tales of the raid to agitate. Blacks feared being marginalized, or worse. And so John Brown was pushed aside, and the centennial began in 1961, with the anniversary of the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter.

“John Brown was, in effect, a terrorist, whether you agree that what he was doing was right or not,” says Gerry Gaumer, spokesman for the Park Service in Washington, D.C. “There are people in the Taliban who believe what they’re doing is right. Can you separate John Brown from what’s going on in Iraq or Iran or Pakistan or Afghanistan?

“They fervently believe what they’re doing is right,” he says. “But is there a better way?”

This month, the Park Service is offering two-mile walking tours that retrace Brown’s footsteps through the picturesque town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Descendants of raiders, soldiers and townspeople will gather in August and then return for the Oct. 16 anniversary to explain their ancestors’ roles.

Had his own been among the bodies in 1859, Brown might have remained a bit player in the larger drama of the war. But that was not his fate. On trial for treason, murder and inciting a rebellion, he refused to apologize and declared the fight for freedom sanctioned by God and the Bible.

Swiftly convicted and executed, he became a potent and enduring symbol — to the North, a heroic martyr willing to die for equality; to the South, a lunatic killer attacking a way of life. And so he remained for a century or more, a complicated man often dismissed with simplistic labels.

Later, people began to talk more openly about slavery and the roles that blacks and other racial and social groups had played in the nation’s defining conflict.