In 1962, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
On July 7, 2016, Micah Johnson shot and killed five police officers in Dallas. And on July 17, 2016, Gavin Long shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rogue. Both Johnson and Long were young Black men with no criminal record. In fact, both of them were military men who voluntarily served their country in the Army and in the Marine Corps, respectively.
What led these two law-abiding patriots to do what they did? Was it the constant refusal of the American so-called criminal justice system to convict, prosecute, charge, arrest, or even indict the cops who murdered innocent Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Shelly Frey, Eric Garner, Darnisha Harris, and many other Black men, women, boys, and girls? And if the system had pursued justice, does anyone really believe that Johnson and Long would have “gone off” and did what they did?
Of course they wouldn’t have. Instead, based on their character and history, they would have engaged in peaceful revolution by peacefully protesting, peacefully petitioning, and peacefully relying on the system to do the right thing. But, as JFK prophesied, America’s racist legal lynching system made their violence inevitable.
The same applies even much more clearly to Nat Turner and what he did in response to racist injustice 185 years ago from August 21 through 23, 1831.
By the way, this man known as Nat Turner, born October 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia, never accepted that name. Although history books refer to this intelligent and literate individual as “Nat Turner,” he, his family, and friends never referred to him that way because he refused to acknowledge ownership by Samuel Turner, the man who had purchased him as a child. He refused because he knew he was an African who could never be truly owned.
Nat’s enslaved father had escaped when Nat was young. And his father’s mother at age 13 had been captured in Ghana and was shipped to America. She was a member of the Akan ethnic group, in particular the Coromantee, which was notoriously rebellious against European and American enslavement- so much so that a proposed law was introduced in 1765 to ban their importation into the colonies because they were not “docile” enough. However, it never became law because their physical strength made them potentially excellent laborers.
Although he came from a bloodline that advocated warfare in self-defense, he was deeply religious. In fact, he wrote that he “studiously avoided mixing in society… (by) devoting (his) time to… praying.” His love for Christianity led him to become a pastor, later known as “The Prophet.” After his escape from slavery in 1821, he returned to the plantation a month afterward because, as he pointed out, the Holy Spirit in a vision told him to.
Four years later, he had another vision, this time while in the work field where, as he reported, he saw “drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both Black and white….”
In 1828, he had a third vision, and it was in this one in which, as he recalled, “the Spirit… said the Serpent was loosened and Christ… (stated) I should fight against the Serpent… (and) should… slay my enemies with their own weapons.” In 1830, he was transported to the home of Joseph Travis who was the new husband of the widow of Thomas Moore, the man who had purchased Nat after Samuel Turner’s death.
A year later, he received a fourth sign, and this was in the form of a solar eclipse that directed him to strike a serious blow against the Serpent’s slavery. As a result, he informed four compatriots, and together they planned the attack for July 4. But his illness caused it to be rescheduled.
His final sign came on August 13 in the form of another solar eclipse. It was then that the date of August 21, 1831 was set. And it was at 2 a.m. on that date that the five-foot-eight-inch, 160-pound, broad-shouldered, slightly goateed, large-eye Nat and his expanded cadre of six men began their mission, stopping first at the home of the slave-owning Travis family where each occupant was executed.
It was during the August 22 midday march toward Jerusalem, Virginia that a militia and then state and federal troops moved in on Nat and his soldiers. But Nat and some others escaped, with Nat evading capture for more than two months before being tracked down on October 30. Less than a week later, on November 5, he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. And on November 11, he was hanged, skinned, beheaded, and quartered, with body parts being dispensed as souvenirs.
Nat and his army- a group that had grown to approximately 70 Blacks, including about 40 enslaved and 30 free (with nearly 300 Blacks suspected of having provided direct or indirect assistance)- ultimately killed 55 whites but spared many others. Despite Nat’s death, he was victorious in putting the fear of God in slaveholders throughout the country.
Those who say Nat overreacted must ask what was the alternative. He couldn’t sue for freedom because Blacks had no legal standing in court. He couldn’t go on strike because state legislatures enacted laws across the country, like the 1705 Virginia law, proclaiming that “if any slave resists his master… (and is beaten by his master) and shall happen to be killed…, the master shall be free of all punishment….” Court decisions were just as bad. In North Carolina v. Mann, for example, the state Supreme Court in 1830 ruled “slave masters have absolute authority over slaves” and cannot be found guilty of any crime committed against them.
More than 150 years of scattered racist legislation and court decisions were made uniform in 1857 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect….” That old legal system sounds kinda like today’s legal system in terms of Blacks getting no courthouse justice, doesn’t it? If Brother Nat could have engaged in peaceful revolution by peacefully protesting, peacefully petitioning, and peacefully relying on the system to do the right thing, he- as a Christian minister- would have. But America’s brutal slave system, which was created by its racist legal system, wouldn’t allow that. Therefore, his actions were not only inevitable but necessary. And because of him, I’m “free” today.
The words from David Walker’s Appeal, written in 1829, and the words of Christopher James Perry Sr., founder of The Tribune in 1884, are the inspiration for my “Freedom’s Journal” columns. In order to honor that pivotal nationalist abolitionist and that pioneering newspaper giant, as well as to inspire today’s Tribune readers, each column ends with Walker and Perry’s combined quote- along with my inserted voice- as follows: I ask all Blacks “to procure a copy of this… (weekly column) for it is designed… particularly for them” so they can “make progress… against (racist) injustice.”
Michael Coard, Esquire can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD900AM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.