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John Brown’s rifle; National Museum of American History

Black abolitionists believed in taking up arms

Originally published: Boston Review Randal Maurice Jelks (January 17, 2020)   | 

Force and Freedom- Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence

Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence
Kellie Carter Jackson
University of Pennsylvania Press, $34.95 (cloth)

Although Thomas Jefferson opined to James Madison in 1787 “that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” he did not have in mind a rebellion by his own forced laborers at Monticello. In fact, when the Second Amendment was drafted two years later, it was intentionally Janus-faced: it aimed to preserve the fruit of U.S. rebellion by arming citizens against an English invasion, even as it also empowered local militias to squash Native and slave rebellions.

The planter class understood that enslavement required complete dominance, including a monopoly on violence. South Carolina’s 1739 Stono Rebellion still loomed large in their memories: enslaved Kongolese warriors had raided guns and ammunition from a local store and killed more than two dozen whites before being defeated. And in 1791, the ink barely dry on the Constitution, Haiti erupted like Mount Vesuvius and challenged the dominion of slavocracy throughout the Americas. The brutally shrewd U.S. leaders realized that slave rebellions were always possible and that firearms had to be kept out of the hands of the enslaved.

Blacks understood this too: slavery was done through violence and would only be ended through violence. Enslaved men and women on the German Coast of Louisiana (today the East Bank of greater New Orleans), for example, inspired by The Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man, sought to emancipate themselves in 1811 by marching toward New Orleans with agricultural tools repurposed as military weapons. Though unsuccessful, they knew that the only certain way to destroy the institution of slavery was to destroy the people who owned their bodies. In a different sort of way, it is a view that was also held by black revolutionaries, in the United States and abroad, in the twentieth century.

Kellie Carter Jackson’s brilliant new Force and Freedom constructs a bridge between these two moments—between the slave rebellions of the early Republic and the armed self-defense and revolutionary violence of twentieth-century black radicals—by filling in the less familiar history of how nineteenth-century abolitionists articulated their support for black armed self-defense and political violence. Her book stands well alongside other recent histories, such as Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (2017); Martha Jones’s Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (2018); and, Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (2016). Like these, Carter Jackson places African Americans centrally as agentive in shaping the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, her book serves as a kind of prequel to histories of armed resistance during the civil rights era, including Charles Cobb, Jr.’s This Nonviolence Stuff Will Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2014), Lance Hill’s The Deacons of the Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (1964), and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013). These works vividly describe how armed self-defense was used in discrete locales in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to advance democratic freedoms, in a militaristic forerunning of Oakland’s Black Panther Party.

What sets Carter Jackson’s book apart as both unique and challenging is her focus on how nineteenth-century black women and men specifically used and thought about political violence as a tool in defense of themselves. In this way, Carter Jackson shows how they—with varying degrees of fretfulness—muddled distinctions between small acts of private armed self-defense and more expressly political forms of violence. Her book therefore helps us to also better understand historical continuities between black perspectives on revolutionary violence in the early Republic and the era of civil rights.

Long before the National Rifle Association (NRA) came in to being, Americans of African descent understood the need for arms to protect themselves. They lived in a slaveholding society where escapees and free people were daily jeopardized by slavery’s federal statutory enforcements. The original Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution (Art. IV, § 2) stated:

No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.

This clause in practice deprived alleged runaways of anything like due process. It placed bounties on the heads of fugitives and was frequently a justification for the kidnapping of the freeborn and manumitted. Thus, while the Constitution ostensibly protected individual liberties, it also codified the coercive force necessary to keep enslavement intact. This is why abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison vehemently charged that the Constitution was “the source and parent of all the other atrocities—‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.’”

It would of course eventually take violence to terminate this “covenant with death”—indeed, the deaths of over half a million Americans. All subsequent generations have sought to better understand the precise course that led to the Civil War, and for much of that time, the perspectives of whites on both sides, including white abolitionists such as Garrison, have dominated historical inquiry. Until quite recently, very little had been written about how black communities, enslaved, manumitted, and freeborn, thought about the politics of violence. Just what did autonomy and political freedoms mean to them? How precious was it to protect? How did their communities actively defy the laws that protected slavery?

Force and Freedom dives into the debates among disparate communities of free and enslaved people about when and how to use political violence. Contrary to Kanye West’s bizarre notion that slavery was “a choice,” blacks frequently fought their enslavement by whatever means available to them, including arms, and theorized openly about the salutary nature of political violence. Carter Jackson begins with freeborn abolitionist David Walker’s 1829 publication of his Appeal. The Appeal was a riotous Molotov cocktail. It radically called for slavery’s destruction. Walker’s flammable prose set planters on edge:

The whites want slaves, and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth. They shall have enough of making slaves of, and butchering, and murdering us in the manner which they have.

Two year after Walker published his clarion call for violent self-manumission, a version of it was attempted by the men and women who organized alongside Nat Turner in South Hampton County, Virginia. Turner’s band attempted to annihilate slaveowners and with them enslavement itself. Turner and Walker were both inspired by Haiti’s success with the violent and complete eradication of enslavement.

Following in the footsteps of Eugene Genovese’s influential Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Carter Jackson offers further evidence that there was never such a thing as a negotiated acquiescence among U.S. slaves to the condition of their enslavement. But whereas Genovese argued that the numerical size of the enslaved population in the United States limited mass rebellions, Carter Jackson demonstrates that the U.S. freeborn population continuously fostered armed rebellion and that political violence was always a widespread topic of conversation among both enslaved and free blacks. And she connects armed actions, debates, and public conversations together to demonstrate a growing collective radicalism among black abolitionists.

Between 1830 and the start of the Civil War, freeborn blacks and former slaves collectively asserted their political freedoms in increasingly direct and forceful ways. By then, black abolitionist had arrived at a loose consensus that slavery’s systemic violence would require systemic retaliatory violence if it were to be destroyed. In other words, Carter Jackson shows that when and how to use political violence—rather than if—was the persistent topic of debate, and the answer was always a moving target, with varied opinions among abolitionists. Abolitionists of all stripes faced dangers, but black abolitionists faced more dangers. So they debated questions such as: What were the relative political advantages of various ways of deploying violence? When was the time to skirt an escapee across the Canadian border, when to raid a jail to rescue a fugitive, and when to have a shootout with slavecatchers?

A missing component in Force and Freedom is the religious context for abolitionists’ discussion of both moral suasion and armed violence. Many of the black abolitionists discussed by Carter Jackson based their ideas upon their black Protestantism. We must take seriously, for example, Frederick Douglass’s foray into becoming Methodist clergy, as well as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s and Harriet Tubman’s spiritual motivations for freedom. Though she writes of Henry Highland Garnet’s “Call to Rebellion” speech at the 1843 Negro Convention, Carter Jackson does not mention his “unflinching Calvinist ethics” that framed his understanding of human liberty. My point, borrowing from an unpublished paper by historian James Bratt on Garnet’s ethic of self-defense, is that there were many ways that political violence was understood by abolitionists, and religion influenced them all. My criticism here is aimed less at Carter Jackson than at U.S. cultural studies in general, which tends to insufficiently explore how religion illuminates African American history. In this case, religion motivated some people to armed insurrection—included Nat Turner—even as it informed broader conversations about whether political violence was justifiable, and, if so, when. Radical white abolitionist John Brown’s last words during his 1859 sentencing for trying to capture the federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, testifies to the religiosity that prevailed:

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 to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with 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!

Force and Freedom would have also been enriched by a sustained engagement with Cedric J. Robinson’s argument, in Black Movements in America (1997), that freedom meant slightly different things among those who were enslaved and those who had been born free. For Robinson, this meant that views about the aims of force could be sorted into class tiers: a privileged one—mainly what is covered in Carter Jackson’s history—which aimed for a use of violence that would perfect rather than abolish the existing order; and one held among the masses, who saw little worth preserving and hoped for the violence of a cleansing flood. Whether or not Robinson was absolutely right in his assessment is a matter of debate, but he was correct that the sometimes-uneasy dialogue between the freeborn and the enslaved shaped the terrain upon which the black politics of the Civil War and post-Emancipation eras have played out.

Nonetheless, Carter Jackson’s rich history stands as evidence that, whatever differences of opinion existed between freeborn and enslaved blacks, their views were more similar to each other’s than they were to those of even many abolitionist whites. John Brown notwithstanding, as W. E. B. DuBois noted in Black Reconstruction in America(1935), most whites—including abolitionists—were terrified of the idea of armed African Americans:

Arms in the hands of the Negro aroused fear both North and South. . . . But, it was the silent verdict of all America that Negroes must not be allowed to fight for themselves. They were, therefore, dissuaded from every attempt at self-protection or aggression by their friends as well as their enemies.

And that has largely remained the case, as Robert F. Williams noted in 1962 in Negroes with Guns:

When people say that they are opposed to Negroes ‘resorting to violence’ what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.

This is perhaps most dramatically embodied by the NRA’s persistent silence on the issue of black gun ownership. Williams directly challenged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Congress on Racial Equality’s reliance on nonviolent protest as, in effect, a form of false consciousness. And set within this genealogy, it becomes clear that Malcolm X’s speeches on armed self-defense were not an aberration, but in keeping with a long tradition.

In James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award–winning novel The Good Lord Bird, Onion, the chief protagonist, offers this observation of John Brown:

He knowed what he wanted to do. But as to the exactness of it—and I knowed many has studied it and declared this and that and the other on the subject—Old John Brown didn’t know exactly what he was gonna do from sunup to sundown on the slavery question.

I draw this quote in to return to the point that there is a fundamental difference between acts of armed self-defense and revolutionary violence to overthrow a state. Here a distinction must be made—and although black radical abolitionists were not always fully transparent about the distinction in their public writing and speaking, they were certainly attentive to it in private. John Brown’s plan to capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry would have come nowhere close to hobbling the U.S. government; he would have needed to control the mass manufacturing of weapons. This is why black abolitionists he attempted to recruit, including Frederick Douglass, were so cautious about his plan. They feared, with varying degrees of consternation, that attacking the state might bring even more hell into their lives. Small acts of armed resistance in the cause of freedom were one thing, full-scale war was another.

Brown’s raid, however, anticipated—and likely sped—the nation’s unraveling over enslavement. The dam, which black abolitionists had steadily tried to crack, finally broke. And when it burst, 600,000 people lay dead. Carter Jackson’s book does not consider this question of scale and cost, but it is one that we as democratic denizens must always keep in mind as we critically think through the levels of armed resistance we are willing to engage in freedom’s name.

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