UF Researcher: Growing Anti-Racist Groups Commemorate John Brown

April 28, 1999

GAINESVILLE — May 1 would be a national holiday honoring a forgotten martyr against slavery if the rapidly growing anti-racist movement has its way, a new University of Florida study finds.

Radical, mostly white anti-racist groups have more than doubled in number during the 90s but have been largely overlooked by the media, a situation that befits their celebration of the almost-forgotten John Brown, a white who was executed in the 1850s for attempting to ignite a revolt against slavery, said Joe Feagin, a UF sociologist and national expert on race relations.

“To this day, John Brown is not a celebrated white American,” Feagin said. “He certainly was a greater man in some ways than Washington, Madison or Jefferson. They all owned black people and put them in chains. Yet we don’t teach our kids about him.”

A national celebration of Brown’s May 1 birthday is one goal of the 300 groups with large white memberships that have been formed to counter the growing visibility of skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations, said Eileen O’Brien, a UF graduate student in sociology. She interviewed anti-racist group leaders in the South, Midwest and Northeast for the study.

Brown, an ardent abolionist, led an 1859 raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., in hopes of touching off a slave rebellion. The general ignorance of his exploit suggests that many white Americans have an aversion to their own civil rights heroes, Feagin said.

One group, the New Abolitionists, with chapters around the nation, wants to boost Brown’s visibility with marches, picnics and graveside remembrances during the first week of May, O’Brien said. “Blacks have celebrated Brown’s birthday for more than a century, but now some whites are beginning to get involved and honor his memory,” she said.

O’Brien, who went to the groups’ workshops and accompanied members to Ku Klux Klan protests, said she was interested in researching specifically how whites get involved in protesting racism. “There has been a long and silent history of whites who have been anti-racist, yet the Underground Railroad couldn’t have existed without whites,” she said.

Feagin, who supervised O’Brien’s research, said the subject has been ignored by scholars. “There has been virtually no research on whites involved in anti-racist movements, particularly since the 60s, even though currently there are 300 such groups,” he said. “But there must be a thousand articles on the growth of racist groups.”

The two organizations O’Brien studied were Anti-Racist Action, which engages in social issues, and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a training group that offers workshops to social workers and community leaders.

Anti-Racist Action, which began protesting neo-Nazi and Klan activities, has more than 70 chapters in the United States and 20 in Canada and distributes a newsletter to about 25,000 people, O’Brien said. In one program called Copwatch, members patrol streets with videocameras, trying to record any incidents of abusive police behavior, she said.

More than 18,000 people have finished one of the two-and-half-day workshops offered by the New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which focuses on more subtle aspects of racism, she said.

“By 2060, the population of people of color is going to double and whites in this country will be a minority,” O’Brien said. “These groups are likely to continue to grow as whites struggle with how to deal with the despair and guilt over how they have treated blacks in the past and learn how to live differently in the future.”

Feagin said Brown has not achieved hero status because until recently the good guys, from the whites’ point of view, were the racists. “Historians have made John Brown out to be a wild-eyed, crazy nut because he was a white man who went out and led a revolution against slavery,” he said. “In a racist society, you don’t want to remember anti-racist whites.”

Ironically, the colonel who captured Brown was Robert E. Lee, a slave holder who went on to lead the Confederate Army three years later and today is a celebrated man with many monuments and a university named for him, Feagin said.