Editor’s note: This commentary is by John Freitag, who is currently serving as chair of the Strafford Selectboard and moderator of the Universalist Society of Strafford. As a young man in the 1960s he was involved in the civil rights movement.
Perhaps it is because I recently finished reading “My Life, My Love, My Legacy,” the deeply moving autobiography of Coretta Scott King detailing her lifelong non-violent struggle against racism and injustice — a life that included countless death threats against her family, the bombing of her home and the assassination of her husband.
Perhaps it is the events at Charlottesville and revulsion I feel at those in our country and around the world who feel violence and terror is the way to achieve their goals.
For whatever reason, the decision by the state of Vermont to honor the violent abolitionist John Brown with a John Brown Day on Oct. 16 seems a step backwards. Brown, besides his failed attack on a government facility in an attempt to start a slave uprising, was a murderer who led a small group who targeted pro-slavery settlers in Kansas. In what is known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, he had his men hack five people to death with swords outside their homes. His purpose, as told by one of his men, was to strike terror into the pro-slavery settlers. While the goal of abolishing slavery was noble and right, and in our own day the removal of statues of Confederate generals and leaders is an action that needs to be taken, we can do better than the hero worship of a violent fanatic. There are far too many these days willing to take the law into their own hands and we do not need to encourage others.
The lessons that we need to teach and honor, and that will be most beneficial to our nation now, are those that speak to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” They are the lessons of the civil rights movement and the many who put their lives on the line and endured beatings, bombings, jail and, at times, even death, yet kept to a higher path, and ultimately, through their sacrifices, rid our country of legalized segregation and provided voting rights and protections to all Americans regardless of race. Thank God we have the wisdom to have a Martin Luther King Day when these lesson can be taught.
While the bitter struggle leading up to the Civil War needs to be remember, in our own divisive times it is important to encourage fidelity to our Constitution and democratic institutions and to recognize that the most effective way to address injustice is through hard work, self-sacrifice and non-violence. A day to honor John Brown, a man who felt he could take the law into his own hands and murder others in service of a cause, no matter how just, is a mistake. John Brown, as with Confederate heroes, does not need to be honored as much as to be recognized as part of our tragic past from which we need to move on. This is a position both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee embraced. It is sad that over 150 years later, it is a lesson that many of still need to learn.