The Moral Universe – Random Reflections 1


Sometimes I have to let ideas percolate, sift them around in my mind, and let them come to maturity in their own time. In an area as fraught as civil rights, and the lack thereof, this is especially true. The stories have to be told, I believe, especially when there is such a danger of them happening again. Indeed, some have happened again. Yet there is a toll too in chronicling the worst side of human nature. And so I need to let some of these stories percolate a bit more and offer for a while some random reflections that have come to me during my reading and research.

Abraham Lincoln says, in the first debate with Stephen Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois, in 1858: “Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.”

I have tortured myself, and I know how neurotic it is, by asking myself whether I would have been one of the people calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus. Would I have been a German who somehow allowed myself to ignore the sounds and smells coming from the concentration camp nearby? Would I have stood by and watched slaves being bought and sold, or relied for my creature comforts on a slave and thought that was a fine way to live?

Since time began there have been people who thought that slavery was a positive institution and that the wholesale extinction of a group of people from different backgrounds was allowable. But there have also been people, since time began, who thought differently and who acted on it. It cannot be a matter of opinion, but something deep in the genetic makeup or psyche or soul of a human being that first says, “No, owning other human beings is wrong.” “No, annihilating all Jews and Armenians and gypsies is wrong.” “No, crucifying a man who has only sought to heal people is wrong.”

There are lovely pictures on Facebook of black and white children hugging: a caption reads, “People aren’t born racists; racism has to be taught.” My gut reaction is to agree, but I do wonder sometimes. Who taught all the Tea Party members from traditionally liberal states to hate so much? Where did they learn to have a horror of not only people of color but poor people, immigrants, homosexuals, and Democrats?I have no answers here, only questions. And the biggest question, how do we overcome this?

It seems hard to believe that while we were running around talking about making love, not war in the Sixties, young children were being togged out for Ku Klux Klan rallies.

I do think that anyone who puts their child in a Ku Klux Klan outfit and brings them to a rally ought to be charged with child abuse. But by whom? Most likely their local law enforcement officials will be at the same rally.

I think that Abraham Lincoln’s statement is legitimate on one level. I also think that changing the minds and hearts of people who hold so firmly to racist ideas is not just a matter of tradition and geography.

Another piece of historic trivia: This comes from famous trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz on the CD “Great Trials of the 20th Century,” which is one of the Great Courses series.

According to Dershowitz, who has read all the case records, the “Scopes Monkey Trial” was about more than teaching evolution in public schools and it was a good thing that John Scopes and Clarence Darrow lost. William Jennings Bryan was portrayed in the play and film as a conservative, ultra-religious buffoon who was prosecuting the case because he was a denier of the theory of evolution.

In fact, says Dershowitz, this wasn’t the case at all. Bryan had seen the textbook that Scopes was teaching from. It was written by a group that was subtly pushing eugenics by way of teaching evolution. In other words, they saw the advantage of might be called “unnatural” selection and a way to breed for only the whitest traits. Again, genetics.

darrow and bryan

Clarence Darrow, left, and William Jennings Bryan.

Since Tennessee did not have integrated schools at the time, the textbook would have been used only in white classrooms and would have been another way of teaching that “white” is good and “black” is bad. This horrified Bryan and motivated him to prosecute the case.


The Moral Universe – In Honor of the Birthday of John Brown, May 9, 1800


john brownThe original last line of what became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was “His soul is marching on!” and was referring to John Brown, not Jesus Christ.

It was black soldiers who started singing about the executed abolitionist, according to David Reynolds’ biography of John Brown. There were many different versions but the same melody until Julia Ward Howe turned it into, basically, a white religious anthem. Stirring and beautiful as it is, it may have helped to bury the story of John Brown and the reverence in which he was held by African-Americans. Many portrayals of him in history books and textbooks in the century after his execution portray him as a fanatic, a self-absorbed maniac, and a misguided martyr.

To former slaves and freedmen, he was the only white person in whose sincerity they believed. Frederick Douglass met and worked with hundreds of white men and women, and yet he said that only with John Brown did he feel he had an authentic relationship of equals; Douglass called Brown “in sympathy a black man.”

In the introduction of W.E.B. Du Bois’s biography of John Brown, David Roediger writes: “In 1938, W.E.B. Du Bois remembered the years during which he wrote John Brown as a period of deep personal transformation. He specifically recalled 1906, when his growing political activism had led him to Harper’s Ferry, ‘the scene of John Brown’s raid.’ Members of the Niagara Movement, a recently formed African American group planning civil rights protests, had gathered there. According to Du Bois, they ‘made pilgrimage at dawn barefooted to the scene of Brown’s martyrdom [and] talked some of the plainest English that had been given voice by black men in America.”

Mr. Roediger goes on to cite Malcolm X and James Baldwin as 20th century admirers of the 19th century abolitionist. He relates the story that Baldwin was once asked which candidate he was going to vote for for President; Baldwin replied, “John Brown.” Baldwin also wrote of John Brown, “He attacked the bastions of the federal government – not to liberate black slaves but to liberate a whole country from a disastrous way of life.”

Many abolitionists of the Northeast, though no doubt sincere in their wish to see the end of slavery, could not help but treat African-Americans in a paternalistic way. While they wanted slavery to go away, having blacks on an equal footing was another story. Only Brown was able to live with blacks, and Native Americans, as a true equal.

A renewed interest in John Brown has seen the publication of new biographies of him, such as Reynolds’; a short overview of his activities in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz, and two novels about him: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks is a fictionalized memoir by Owen Brown, who deserted his father’s cause at Harper’s Ferry; The Good Lord Bird by James McBride is a picaresque tale  of a young black slave whom Brown plucked from his master and took with him on his adventures. Recalling Twain, the book delivers a deeper message under some high comedy and searing tragedy. It won the National Book Award in 2013.

Perhaps John Brown was a fanatic. It is sure that he was a deeply religious man of Calvinist persuasion. His belief in the equality of all people, including women, however, does not square what we think of when we say “Calvinism.” He did believe he had a God-given destiny to fulfill and that that destiny was to put an end to slavery or die trying. His master plan to do that by taking the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, gathering up slaves from surrounding communities, and establishing free-black communities in the mountains may have seemed doomed (Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman could not, in the end, support the plan), tragically naïve, and suicidal. Yet there were many who believed, as I do now, that slavery would not have ended when it did if not for his actions. Politicians who were not necessarily abolitionists but also not in favor of slavery believed that slavery would die out of its own accord by 1900. Brown’s few months in prison before his execution were even more propitious for an earlier end to the abominable institution. His death on the gallows indicted the American nation, and from that time on, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation were foreordained.

In 1859, when Brown’s raid took place, Harper’s Ferry was part of the state of Virginia. During the Civil War, the southwest part of Virginia seceded from the secessionists and became the state of West Virginia. It is a beautiful little village with breathtaking views of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers coming together. The people are very friendly there, and much of the town is part of the National Parks Service. The railroad station that was an integral part of the Brown raid now serves commuters to Washington, DC.


Dangerfield Newby was a freed slave who was still trying to get his wife and children free at the time of his death. His letters to his wife are heart-breaking.


Lewis Leary’s widow, Mary, remarried and became the grandmother of poet Langston Hughes.

North Elba, New York, today thought of as Lake Placid, is also a National Parks Service site of John Brown’s farm. A huge tract of land in the Adirondacks was given to free blacks and Brown by abolitionist Gerrit Smith to establish a free community. The farmstead still stands, and it is here that John Brown is buried. Most movingly, his family was able to gather the bodies of all who were executed with him or died at Harper’s Ferry, and in death as in life, Brown abides with black and white men. There are the sons who died in the firehouse, Watson and Oliver; and Brown’s “League of Gileadites”: William and Dauphin Thompson, Aaron Stevens, Albert Hazlett, Stewart Taylor, John Kagi, William Leeman, Dangerfield Newby, and Lewis Leary. Fifteen hundred people attended the interment when their remains were laid to rest.

The John Brown Museum in Harper’s Ferry is arranged as a series of tableaus from Brown’s life. It is in a narrow house and once you enter, you are in a sort of labyrinth. I went through it alone one morning in 2012, struck by the way each tableau of waxen figures and 19th century materials, told a whole story itself. Then I came to the last story, John Brown being led up the steps of the gallows. As I stared at the scene, his head suddenly moved upward and piercing blue eyes stared at me. The shock stunned me, and in disorientation I followed the maze back to ground level to check with the attendant that this was not a weird vision on my part. It wasn’t, but I can still picture that and recall John Brown’s last written words and prophecy:

“I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Postscript: Apart from the importance of the story of John Brown, his story is full of historic trivia. Ulysses S. Grant’s father, as a young man, had lodged with Brown’s father’s family in Ohio. John Brown’s father was one of the first trustees of Oberlin College. In his work for the Underground Railroad, John Brown worked with Allan Pinkerton, the eponymous detective whose logo for his agency, a triangle with an eye in the middle of it, became the source of the term “private eye.” It was Pinkerton whose detective work found and foiled a conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington, D.C., after his election. The commanding federal officer at Harper’s Ferry was Robert E. Lee, and a witness to Brown’s downfall there was John Wilkes Booth, who had thought it would be great fun to borrow a militia uniform and get in on the action.

The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning, Part 3


When Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price let Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman out of jail at 10:30 pm on Father’s Day, 1964, the Meridian CORE office had been trying to find out where they were for several hours. That was protocol; if a field worker didn’t check in on a regular basis, start the phone tree going. So the first thing Mickey Schwerner should have done after being released was to have found a phone and called the office to report what had happened.

Price had not let the trio use a phone while they were in jail. Perhaps there wasn’t a pay phone nearby. Perhaps the three just wanted to get out of Philadelphia as quickly as possible. They hadn’t reached the city limits before Price caught up with them again along with several other Klansmen. According to Klansman James Jordan’s confession, they were put in Price’s car and driven to an isolated road. Schwerner and Goodman were killed with one bullet each. James Chaney was tortured before being shot. The bodies were dumped in an earth dam already picked out by the organizers.

Bob Moses was correct in believing that something happening to young white people in Mississippi would bring action from the federal government. On June 22, the FBI swarmed to the area, ordered there by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The car Schwerner had been driving was found by Choctaw Indians on a swampy river on their property. It took another 44 days before the FBI’s efforts to turn Klansmen against each other took them to the burial site.

“Mississippi Burning,” or “MIBURN,” was the name of the FBI’s file on the case. It is also, of course, the name of the movie made in the 1990s about the aftermath of the murders and the hunt for the bodies. At the time the movie came out, I was doing film reviews for the newspaper I worked for. I don’t have the clipping, but I’m sure I gave it a very good review. I watched it again recently to see whether my younger self had been too kind to the movie. It hadn’t.

Despite cinematic flourishes and changing the protagonists’ names, the movie still opens a window onto a tragic, shameful piece of US history that many might not know about otherwise. It opens with a scene of the car carrying Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on a lonely country road, driving up one hill and down another, like some kind of a roller coaster. And suddenly at the rise of a hill behind them, there is a truck that then disappears into the dip. Then there’s another truck on the hill behind the first, and so on. And you know these young men are doomed.

Instead of focusing on the actual FBI agent who led the investigation, the movie casts two characters that are really metaphors. A Kennedy-esque looking Willem Dafoe is the straight arrow who does everything by the book and brings his Northern sensibilities to Mississippi with him. Gene Hackman is a former cop turned agent who is a native of Mississippi and understands the games one has to play to get at the truth.

A love story is thrown in that could probably have been left out, but it does serve to show that not everyone in Philadelphia was a racist and that there were people born there who would abhor what happened to the three civil rights workers.

One detail in the movie that was true was the hiring of mob enforcers by the FBI to intimidate members of the Klan or people close to the Klan to get information.

Howard Ball, in Murder in Mississippi, goes into quite a bit of legal detail about the effort to bring 18 Klansmen to trial for “conspiracy to violate the civil rights” of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. It took three years of legal wrangling, including a trip to the US Supreme Court, to get to trial. Seven of the 18 were found guilty, including Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers and Deputy Sheriff Ray Price. Preacher Ray Killen, who spent the eight hours of June 21, 1964, organizing the killing party, was not convicted because of a hung jury; a female juror said she could never convict a man of the cloth.

Most of the seven men were out of jail within six years, but Sam Bowers would return to a penitentiary for life for the 1965 murder of NAACP field worker Vernon Dahmer Jr. Wayne Roberts, who was fingered as the actual shooter, served the full ten years of his sentence.

Both Mr. Ball and the authors of We Are Not Afraid relate the anecdote that Roberts was unable to understand or appreciate the last words Mickey Schwerner ever said. Just before shooting him, Roberts said to him, “Are you that nigger-lover?” Schwerner replied, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

As a well-trained CORE employee, Schwerner was trying to engage the enemy right up to the end.