Why Malcolm X said white people should be like abolitionist John Brown

OPINION: To commemorate the civil rights leader's birthday, we looked back at what Malcolm X had to say about white supremacy and why he considered John Brown the standard for white allyship.

Malcolm X, John Brown, theGrio.com
Malcolm X speaks to reporters in Washington on May 16, 1963. Fifteen years after being rejected as too controversial, the civil rights leader has been inducted as the newest member of the Nebraska Hall of Fame. The organization's commission selected the civil rights icon on Monday on a 4-3 vote. (Photo: AP, File)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

At a time when white supremacy poses an existential threat to society, we need the spirit of Malcolm X, and we need more white co-conspirators like John Brown.

In his commencement address at Howard University, President Joe Biden called white supremacy a “poison” and “the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.” The speech came days after the birthday of the abolitionist John Brown, who was born May 9, 1800, and days before the birthday of the legendary Black leader Malcolm X, who was born May 19, 1925. Both men knew that white supremacy was the problem, and they were killed trying to dismantle whiteness and save America, And we are still dealing with the problem today.

The family of Malcolm X has sued the FBI, the NYPD and other government agencies for conspiring to assassinate the leader in 1965. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI formed COINTELPRO to discredit and disrupt the civil rights movement, and “Prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”

Malcolm — who was forming Black coalitions across America and the world — had planned to take America to the United Nations and charge the country with human rights violations for its mistreatment of Black people. He made the “Afro-American problem” an international problem.

“Sometimes, I have dared to dream … that one day, history may even say that my voice — which disturbed the white man’s smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency — that my voice helped to save America from a grave, possibly even fatal catastrophe,” Malcolm X wrote.

And Malcolm had some things to say about John Brown, the abolitionist driven by his Christian faith, personal convictions and love of humanity to end slavery. Brown was not a white savior; he was a co-conspirator who helped to liberate Black people. After coming into the public eye during the “Bleeding Kansas” civil war — which determined whether that state would enter the union as a free or slave state — Brown led a raid with white and Black folks on Harpers Ferry, a federal armory in Virginia (now West Virginia) in the hopes of sparking a movement to liberate the enslaved.

John Brown (1800 – 1859) the American abolitionist. The song in memory of his exploits during the Harpers Ferry Raid ‘John Brown’s Body’ was a popular marching song with Union soldiers. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

John Brown was hanged in 1859 for murder, insurrection and treason. Although they killed Brown, slavery remained an unresolved issue only to be litigated on the battlefield 16 months later. And as he predicted in his last words, ending slavery and purging the land of its crimes would be bloody.

“You had better — all you people of the South — prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. It must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it, and the sooner you commence that preparation, the better for you. You may dispose of me very easily — I am nearly disposed of now, but this question is still to be settled — this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet,” Brown said.

Black folks loved John Brown. “He done more in dying than 100 men would in living,” said Harriet Tubman, who thought Brown was the greatest white man who ever lived. And he died only 16 months before the Civil War. “If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did, at least, begin the war that ended slavery,” said Frederick Douglass

Viewed as a martyr and hero by many, John Brown was a lunatic terrorist to others. After all, a white man acting in the interests of the enslaved to overthrow the plantation police state was the greatest fear for white supremacist Southerners. “They’re trying to make it look like he was a nut, a fanatic,” Malcolm X said. “But they depict him in this image because he was willing to shed blood to free the slaves. And any white man who is ready and willing to shed blood for your freedom — in the sight of other whites, he’s nuts.”

Malcolm X suggested that if John Brown were still alive, he might have been accepted into his OAAU, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. And Malcolm viewed Brown as the standard for white allyship. “If a white man wants to be your ally, what does he think of John Brown?” Malcolm asked. “You know what John Brown did? He went to war. He was a white man who went to war against white people to help free slaves.

Malcolm X, John Brown, theGrio.com
Black Muslim activist Malcolm X (1925 – 1965) arrives at London Airport carrying a portable cinecamera. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

“So if we need white allies in this country, we don’t need those kind who compromise. We don’t need those kind who encourage us to be polite, responsible, you know,” Malcolm added. “We don’t need those kind who give us that kind of advice. We don’t need those kind who tell us how to be patient. No, if we want some white allies, we need the kind that John Brown was, or we don’t need you. And the only way to get those kind is to turn in a new direction.”

W.E.B. Du Bois believed the memory of John Brown was a “mighty warning to his country,” and that the white abolitionist felt in his soul the wrong and danger of American slavery. According to Du Bois, “John Brown taught us that the cheapest price to pay for liberty is its cost today. The building of barriers against the advance of Negro-Americans hinders but in the end cannot altogether stop their progress.” 

Over a century-and-a-half after his death, John Brown resonates in a nation that still has not addressed slavery, racial injustice and white supremacy.

“I think that the way most of us, certainly white America has been educated is to consider issues of violence against the Black community — whether it’s enslavement, police violence, street white supremacist violence, health care — I think were trained to see these as Black issues,” Martha Swan, the founder and executive director of John Brown Lives!, told theGrio. The Westport, N.Y., nonprofit organization uses education, history and the arts to achieve freedom, human rights and climate justice. 

“One of the really important lessons of John Brown is he believed it was born on the backs of Black people, but it was the duty of white people to resist and work to abolish,” Swan added.

John Brown Lives! has continued the century-old tradition of John Brown Day, started by Black Philadelphians Dr. Jesse Max Barber and Dr. T. Spotuas Burwell, who laid a wreath on Brown’s grave in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York to honor “this great friend of the race.”

Swan noted that John Brown was not only antislavery, but he was also an egalitarian. “He was a friend to and with Black people. He believed in human equality and the dignity of all people, and that made him exceptional even among abolitionists.”

At a time when white supremacy is playing for keeps and trying to return the country to the good ol’ days for white America — with the repression of Black people and other people of color, women, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized communities — white America needs more white folks like John Brown. 

“He really forces the question of what is violence,” Swan noted of Brown, particularly within the context of the violence America faces today through the laws that are enacted and the toxic rhetoric that is disseminated throughout society. “For most of his life he was engaged in peaceful nonviolence,” Swan added. “Whose violence do we condemn and whose violence do we condone or celebrate?”

John Brown gave his life for justice and raised his children to be antiracists. White people today must learn some lessons from him if they want America to survive.

David A. Love, theGrio.com

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.

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