Skip Navigation
Regional News
The day opened with drumming by the NAACP Albany Branch Student Theater Outreach Program (S.T.O.P.). Photo: Beehive Productions
The day opened with drumming by the NAACP Albany Branch Student Theater Outreach Program (S.T.O.P.). Photo: Beehive Productions

At John Brown Day, what does freedom mean?

Listen to this story
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In a few months, it will be exactly fifty years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

And this past weekend, one organization in the North Country held its annual birthday party for John Brown, on the Adirondack farm he lived in for two years, and the place where his body is buried.

Hear this

Download audio

Share this


Explore this

Reported by

Natasha Haverty
Reporter and Producer

Just as John Brown Day is about to start, the skies get dark, threatening to break open. So more than 200 people cram into a tent. And the rain never does come, but the wind makes the walls of the tent flap so hard that at certain moments it seems like one whole side of it might just blow right away. It feels like we're all on some big ship, sailing over the rolling fields of John Brown's farm.

Dick Gregory, on stage with Ellen Rocco. Photo: Beehive Productions
Dick Gregory, on stage with Ellen Rocco. Photo: Beehive Productions
A good third of the people here in the tent are the performers, from a whole choir performing a historical oratorio, to the group of students up from Albany playing drums and dancing, and singing the South African National Anthem.

The guest of honor is the comedian Dick Gregory. But before Gregory comes on stage, I can see him outside, pacing around the parking lot. When he gets on stage he talks a little about what was going on in his head back there:

"I sat out there and I wondered do you all know what this is about. And who this person was."

The Northern Lights Choir performing the "Voices of Timbuctoo" oratorio. Photo: Beehive Productions
The Northern Lights Choir performing the "Voices of Timbuctoo" oratorio. Photo: Beehive Productions
And over the course of the afternoon, I've been wondering the same thing. This word "freedom" keeps getting thrown around, and as I look at this huge group of people who have trekked out here to honor John Brown, I really want to know is what that word "freedom" means to them, what they would say it means to be free. So I ask.

Eleanor Stein, lawyer and professor of environmental law from Albany, says "we Americans tend to define freedom very much in terms of individuals as opposed to society. And in my view, real freedom is the ability to participate in a community, be part of a community, where people have equal rights, where people treat the envorinment with respect, and treat each other with respect and love."

J.W. Wiley, a professor at SUNY Plattsburgh, says he thinks freedom, "to a certain extent in our country is a marketing ploy and a farce? I think freedom is a nice concept or a notion but it's something we are far from achieving until people wake up."

Members of S.T.O.P. performed original dances, choreographed off the theme of liberation. Photo: Beehive Productions
Members of S.T.O.P. performed original dances, choreographed off the theme of liberation. Photo: Beehive Productions
Larry Lawrence, Charman of the John Brown Society, thinks freedom "means different things in different periods of history. It was very clear what it meant in the nineteenth century, in the United States it meant the overthrow of slavery. I think what mankind faces now is a conundrum." He says he doesn't think he's free.

Two members of the NAACP Albany Branch Student Theater Outreach Program (S.T.O.P.) have their interpretations: T'Keeyah Graison  says it's "the right to make your own choices on how life is, in your way, in your direction," and Jerel Payton says "you don't have to be owned by nobody."

As the day comes to a close, people walk about 100 feet down the hill and link arms in a circle. Here lies John Brown. After a long moment of silence, the circle disbands, and I catch Martha Swan, the director of John Brown Lives! and the force behind this whole day. She says my question is "so hard to answer. What does freedom mean? Freedom means...possibility. Freedom means...the full flowering of human dignity."

 

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.