November 11 was the 192nd anniversary of the execution of Nat Turner, a freedom fighter who changed the course of American history. Born into captivity in Virginia, Turner refused to accept slavery at the urging of his mother, herself kidnapped from Africa.
Believing himself divinely called to lead enslaved Black people out of slavery, he led an insurrection against the white enslaving class following a solar eclipse. It took a militia of 3,000 to defeat Turner’s forces and bring him in to be executed in November 1831. Still, in death, Turner remained a symbol of armed revolt against slavery. He destroyed the myth that enslaved Black people were content or uninterested in freedom. Turner’s armed struggle helped raise tensions in the slaveholding South, heightening the contradictions that would eventually be unleashed in the Civil War and emancipation. In this way, Turner and his fellow combatants played a crucial role in the abolition of slavery a generation later (Britannica).
Nat Turner could be framed as an extremist since his “religious ardour tended to approach fanaticism.” He might also be called a terrorist for “spreading terror throughout the white South” with his insurrection, which started with “a campaign of total annihilation” against the white owning class. Turner and his fellow escaped Black militants didn’t attack military targets. They attacked the white families who oversaw and profited from chattel slavery, killing 60 men, women, and children—many in their sleep (Britannica). Eventually, over 70 militants joined him, moving from plantation to plantation and killing the families that ruled over others as property.
• Support political prisoners and prisoners of war incarcerated for alleged actions against oppressive systems.
• Support the Palestinian Youth Movement campaign to defend Palestinian resistance against apartheid.
• Practice good security culture to keep clandestine organizing secure.
We don’t celebrate Turner because we’re bloodthirsty maniacs who relish the thought of killing people. We celebrate Turner because we abhor a system that oppressed, enslaved, and killed many times more people. Under white supremacy, millions of enslaved Black people were forced to labor their entire lives for white owners who would abuse, mistreat, maim, or kill them on a whim (NIH). Turner and his fellow combatants took the lives of white families who had stolen their lives first and categorized them not as humans but as property to be bought and sold.
Nat Turner was the leader of the only sustained, successful revolt led by enslaved peoplein U.S. history. It struck fear into the hearts of the enslavers. Hundreds of Black people were killed in retaliation, and martial law was instituted. But the revolt also deepened the wedge between pro-slavery and pro-abolition forces, setting in motion the chain of events that would lead to emancipation (History). In 1855, abolitionist and pro-slavery forces would engage in guerrilla warfare in what became known as Bleeding Kansas (History). One of the Bleeding Kansas guerrillas, a white abolitionist named John Brown, would later attempt to set off an anti-slavery insurrection. Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry “inflamed sectional tensions” that were set off with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. During the ensuing Civil War, enslaved Black workers abandoned plantations en masse to join the Union Army, a “general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps half a million people” (Slate).
It’s not enough to just bear witness to the suffering of oppressed people. “There is nothing new about the visual of Black Americans being tortured, maimed, dehumanized, and killed. It has always been part of our culture,” writes Savala Nolan, author and Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law (Time). We can’t support oppressed people only when they’re passively accepting their fate. There’s nothing progressive in only supporting victims until they fight back against their victimhood. We can’t only accept forceful resistance when it’s led by oppressed white people or written as part of our ancient past. We ought to celebrate people fighting back against the people and institutions that dehumanize them, historically and in the present day. We ought to be grateful for past generations of anti-racist militants who took up the armed struggle so that we can live in a more liberated society today. Slavery was an inherently violent system enforced at the point of the gun. Today, forms of pervasive violence like policing, neocolonialism, mass incarceration, and ongoing genocides are enforced by the same.
• Nat Turner led the only sustained, successful revolt led by enslaved people in U.S. history.
• Turner’s militants killed plantation owners and their families, setting in motion the events that led to emancipation.
• We shouldn’t just recognize oppression. We should celebrate and support those fighting against it.