Honoring John Brown's Stand Against Slavery

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond talks with Farai Chideya about the installation of a plaque in Harper's Ferry, W.Va., last week to commemorate abolitionist John Brown's historic stand against slavery in 1859.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The NAACP is holding its 97th annual convention this week in Washington, D.C. But before the meeting began in the nation's capital, the group's officials had some unfinished business to take care of in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

That's where they laid a plaque honoring abolitionist John Brown. The group had tried to honor him one before more than 70 years ago, but the gesture created such an uproar that the commemorative plaque was withdrawn.

I spoke with NAACP Chairman Julian Bond about remembering a man who was willing to die for others' freedom.

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Chairman, NAACP): The NAACP is approaching its centennial in 2009, and leading up to that centennial we're trying to visit many of the sites that are part of our history. Harpers Ferry, Virginia, is really - what used to be Harpers Ferry, Virginia, it's Harpers Ferry, West Virginia now - is really an important part of our history. It was at Harpers Ferry that the second meeting of what was called the Niagara Movement was held. Precisely because this was the scene of the martyrdom of John Brown, who arguably fired the first shot in the civil war.

In the 1930s, the NAACP tried to place a plaque in his honor on the campus of Storer College here. The trustees and president of the college objected. They said the plaque was too militant. Now, 74 years later, we've gathered again, we put that plaque in place. And so...

CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit about how your decision to go to Harpers Ferry and lay this monument, I guess, sets the groundwork for everything else that you're doing during your national convention.

Mr. BOND: Well, part of our national convention is to refocus our efforts on sort of the standard things that we've been doing for years and years and years. You know, people are always asking me what new thing is the NAACP going to do, and I've always been quick to say that actually we're not going to do anything new, we just want to do the old things much better than we have done in the past. And the old things are to fight, as DuBois said, for every single right that belongs to a free born American - political, civil, and social.

Until we get these rights, we'll never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. That's what we did in 1909 when we were founded, and that's what we do today. So this visit to Harpers Ferry is kind of a symbolic recharging of our batteries.

CHIDEYA: Of course, John Brown was someone who attempted to change by force the course of history, and is it at all disturbing to you to honor a man who used violence as a tool? I think that during, you know, the Black Panther movement, much more recently than John Brown, you saw a lot of division within the African-American community over the use of force. Has anyone criticized the decision to go ahead with laying this monument?

Mr. BOND: No, no one has, but I'm sure someone will. But you know, DuBois said, about John Brown, he said we do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown. And that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself, on the altar of right. And we believe in that today.

CHIDEYA: Julian Bond, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BOND: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Julian Bond is the chairman of the NAACP, based in Baltimore. Their national convention goes on in Washington, D.C., through tomorrow.

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