This essay examines the 1959 controversy over whether and how to commemorate the centennial of abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. I argue that the controversy arose because commemorating Brown’s raid challenged prominent U.S. public memories of the Civil War that excluded slavery and the continued existence of white supremacy. I analyze the discursive fields into which the centennial commemoration entered: the heroic, patriotic, and unifying narratives of the war championed by the national organizations tasked with commemorating the Civil War centennial, and discourses of the civil rights movement and the black press that demanded a repudiation of white supremacy and the recognition of African Americans as equal citizens. Ultimately, I contend that the rhetoric that surrounded the Harpers Ferry raid commemoration sheds light on how the civil rights movement not only challenged white supremacy in its conservative form, but also pushed against the moderate and liberal manifestations of white supremacy that were embedded in the commemoration of the Harpers Ferry raid.

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