Commemorations are being held in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland today to mark the 150th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. We end today’s show with a reading of John Brown’s address to the court in Virginia that ordered his hanging. Actor Harris Yulin read his words as part of a larger reading of Howard Zinn’s classic work, A People’s History of the United States. Yulin was followed by James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up today’s broadcast, well, commemorations are being held in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland today for the 150th anniversary of the abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. We end today’s show with a reading of John Brown’s address to the court in Virginia that ordered his hanging. Actor Harris Yulin read his words as part of a larger reading of Howard Zinn’s classic work, A People’s History of the United States. Yulin is followed by James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass. We begin with historian Howard Zinn.
HOWARD ZINN: John Brown, more than any other white American, devoted his life, and finally sacrificed it, on behalf of freedom for the slave. His plan, impossible and courageous, was to seize the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia with a band of black and white abolitionists and set off a revolt of slaves throughout the South. The plan failed.
Some of his men, including two of his own sons, were killed. John Brown was wounded, captured, sentenced to death by hanging by the state of Virginia, and with the enthusiastic approval of the government of the United States. When he was put to death, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, he will make the gallows holy as the cross.
Here, John Brown addresses the court that ordered his hanging.
HARRIS YULIN: [reading John Brown] Had I interfered in the manner which I admit…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, brother, 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.
This Court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or, at least, the New Testament. That teaches me that all things “whatsoever I would that men should do unto me, I should do even so to them.” […] I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. 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 my children, and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit: so let it be done!
HOWARD ZINN: Twenty-two years later, in 1881, Frederick Douglass was asked to speak at a college in Harpers Ferry.
JAMES EARL JONES: [reading Frederick Douglass] If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry and the arsenal, not Colonel Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free republic. Until that blow was struck, the prospect of freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm, the sky was cleared.
AMY GOODMAN: James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass on this, today, the 150th anniversary of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry.