On 16 October 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown led an undertrained and undersized “army” on what was to be the opening salvo in a slave movement that would grow large enough to ultimately stamp out what he termed the “sum of all villainies”. Instead, however, the raid on Harper’s Ferry ended after two days, with 17 dead, including a free African American and two enslaved persons. By one accounting, only 5 enslaved persons were freed as a direct result of the raid. Brown himself was quickly tried, convicted and hanged for treason. Many credit the raid with lighting the fuse that would explode in Civil War a short time later.
One could wonder why, of all people and all historical events, we chose John Brown and his ill-conceived raid as a theme for our inaugural conference. Our answer is this: Brown recognized that to be a free, white bystander in a slaveocracy nourished by injustice would mean to support the enslavement, murder, rape and torture of millions of his fellow human beings. Brown dedicated much of his life fighting against slavery and then went into Harper’s Ferry understanding he would likely die in the raid.
So it is not the raid itself that we are recognizing, but rather the urgency of moral necessity driving the bold action taken by Brown, at a time when only action would bring about change. Many of us sense that now is likewise a time for action in the name of social justice, and WSJI’s hope is that Brown’s example will challenge us all to take some risk (short of armed rebellion) aimed at fighting racism.