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John Brown’s Body Today

John Brown’s Body
Lies a moldering in the grave
His truth is marching on!

it is difficult to comprehend today that  thousands of white Americans,  including my great great grandfather Ezra Fuller, were marching with Sherman through Georgia, facilitating the rebellion of slaves freeing  themselves from their bondage. Union soldiers destroyed the means  of production and distribution—such as pieces of railroad track, heated and twisted around trees, renamed “Sherman’s Neckties”—that had made the slave economy possible. Along the way,  they intoned this historic antiracist verse. Sherman himself later claimed that the soldiers sang perfectly in tune, which must be impossible. But we may wonder.

Julia Ward Howe had already expanded this lyric, in 1861, for a poem that became the basis of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Sung in churches as the War moved toward a successful conclusion, this  longer version ends

As He died to make men holy
Let us die to make men free!
As God is marching on.

Since childhood, I have found these verses stirring.  Much later, probably after reading Steinbeck’s epic novel,  I went back to an earlier verse

He is trampling out the vineyards
Where the grapes of wrath are stored.

Think about that today!

We, as a society, are tasting those grapes of wrath. They are bitter. But perhaps not bitter enough.

In one of the luminous texts of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois added, to his earlier Souls of Black Folk, an afterword: “The Souls of White Folk.” Here, Du Bois lays out the fate of twentieth century civilization and beyond. He writes in the aftermath of the First World War—despite patriotic rhetoric, only a war of empire, fought over control of the Global South, its resources and it exploitable population. Back at home, race riots, pogroms against black communities raged, and he wrote:

America, Land of Democracy, wanted to believe in the failure of democracy so far as darker people were concerned. Absolutely without excuse she established a caste system, rushed into preparation for war, and conquered tropical colonies. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Europe in Europe’s worst sin against civilization…[and meanwhile]…She trains her immigrants to this despising of ‘niggers’ from the day of their landing, and they carry and send the news back to the submerged classes in the fatherlands….

Back beyond the world and swept by these wild, white faces of the awful dead, why will this Soul of White Folk—this modern Prometheus,—hang bound by his own binding, tethered by a fable of the past? I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, “I am white!” Well, and good, O Prometheus, divine thief! Is not the world wide enough for two colors, for many little shinings of the sun? Why, then, devour your own vitals if I answer even as proudly, “I am black!”

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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