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Nat Turner’s 1831 Rebellion and the Legacy of Violence


This Sunday, Aug. 21, was the 180th anniversary of the slave rebellion led by the Rev. Nat Turner in Virginia.

Born into slavery on Oct. 2, 1800, Turner developed two characteristics that would propel him eventually to lead an insurrection: literacy skills and a religion-based fervor against slavery.

In most Southern states, it was against the law to teach slaves to read. But Turner's master's son taught him anyway, and this allowed Turner to study the Bible and bring his own interpretation of its teachings regarding bondage and liberation.

He claimed that God gave him several signs to lead an effort to overthrow slavery. Believing that he was carrying out God's word, Turner enlisted as many slaves as possible to kill as many whites as possible, including women, children and the aged.

For several days, Turner and his band of 60 to 70 slaves went from farm to farm murdering as many whites as they could, although reportedly there were some very poor whites who were spared. Eventually, a white posse was able to suppress the rebellion.

Turner and his strategy of mass slave uprisings and the killing of whites posed such a threat to the system that he was not just hanged, but his body was skinned and hacked into pieces. To this day, it is unknown where his body parts lie.

Turner wasn't the only victim of coldblooded vengeance. Whites retaliated also by going on a slaughtering spree, killing hundreds of free blacks and slaves.

Many historians cite Turner's revolt as a turning point in the national discourse over slavery. For many anti-slavery activists in the North, the rebellion underscored the permanent instability of the slave system and its untenable nature. Southern slave owners doubled down and imposed even harsher conditions on those enslaved, more restrictions on blacks who were “free” and absolute intolerance for whites who questioned the institution.

Turner's rebellion foreshadowed the Civil War, which cost 600,000 lives, as the South fruitlessly and desperately sought to maintain the slave system.

While the situations are different today, in many parts of the world, millions of people are rising up against oppressive rule. Millions more languish under a globalized economic order. Social systems that failed to address the grievances felt by millions will inevitably confront the same forces that drove Turner to his act of desperation, frustration, and violence.

Extreme situations generate extreme outcomes. And violence never occurs outside of a historical and social context. Americans shouldn't forget our own history of revolts and uprisings in the name of justice — many of which included violence. The struggle against slavery was challenged not only by peaceful petitioners and radical writers, but also by actions that sought to respond to slavery's bloodshed by creating some of their own.

Slavery was a system that could exist only through the most brutal and ruthless violence imaginable. Nat Turner knew that well.


Clarence Lusane is program director/associate professor at the Comparative and Regional Studies Program in the School of International Service at American University. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Lusane is author of many books, including THE BLACK HISTORY OF THE WHITE HOUSE, published in the Open Media Series by City Lights Books, www.citylights.com.

  

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