« Previous Story | Front Page | Next Story »


The Mural of John Brown

By Vickie Stangl
Analysis | November 11, 2012

john-brown-capitol-mural-anti-slavery.jpgTOPEKA, Kan. - The elections are over and all too quickly the 2013 legislative session will convene in Topeka. The Capitol has been in the midst of renovations but one iconic image remains to greet a new year and new visitors to the Capitol: John Steuart Curry's mural of abolitionist John Brown.

America has a long history of religious zealots embracing a political cause but Kansas may be unique in vividly paying homage to a law breaking, fire breathing, gun toting abolitionist. Curry's mural is riveting and yet chilling. Artistically, he has captured the out of control intensity of the era known as "bleeding Kansas", but also how the righteousness of one man has too often shaped and warped American politics.

Curry terrifyingly shows the face of religious fanaticism infecting the soul of John Brown. His eyes are ablaze with God-like wrath, and like a giant Moses parting the red sea, his outstretched arms form a cross symbolizing his own crucifixion for the sins of others. He is the zealot gone mad, convinced he will be the one to lead the nation to destruction, but ultimately rebirth and the promise land. In his left hand, John Brown holds the word of God (the Bible) while in his right, he grips a rifle aptly nicknamed the Beecher Bible.

Did Curry paint an Ode to Fanaticism or was he symbolically revealing the dangers of what happens when one man uses violence to achieve his goals? I was unaware of the controversy surrounding this famous mural until I was given a booklet on the building of the Capitol which reviewed the debate over Curry's depiction of John Brown. The Kansas Council of Women were unhappy stating: "Rather than revealing a law-abiding, progressive state, the artist has emphasized the freaks in its history-the tornadoes, and John Brown, who did not follow legal procedure..."

I have to agree with the ladies on several points. First, it's embarrassing to have a crazy uncle like that splashed up on the wall for legions of strangers to view and conclude that Kansans must be mutants who produce more than their fair share of fanatics. And, Brown wasn't even a native Kansan but joined up with his sons later and then resorted to violence when he could not politically change the world around him. For men like Brown, the art of compromise, the ability to reason and develop some workable plan to transition slaves to freedom, was in many respects a far more difficult task than just starting a war.

Second, why didn't Curry paint a mural of the women of Kansas who were determined to have a seat at the table of government? Why not a mural dedicated to the long battle for Woman's Suffrage in Kansas? The famous suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, stumped the state trying to win full voting rights for women in 1867. Kansas women continued to fight for the vote and amazingly prevailed in 1912. Kansas became the 8th state in the Union to pass full suffrage for women before the 19th Amendment granted that right to all women of America. Now that would make a great mural!

My ultimate unease with Curry's mural in the Capitol building instead of in a museum comes down to one simple reason. In such an important government building where lawmaking is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society, the mural seems to glorify a person whose mark on Kansas was due to violence. Regardless of the noble cause to abolish slavery, Brown was a murderer. Imagine if other state capitols such as Springfield, Illinois included a mural prominently depicting under the dome a scene of Al Capone shooting a tommy gun into the air in his belief that the feds could not control a man's sacred right to make a living.

Curry defended his amazing mural by stating he wanted to tell the story of Kansas, warts and all. I applaud that effort but he sends the wrong message by memorializing a religious fanatic. Brown killed five Kansas men in cold blood. He led his own sons and others to their deaths in attempting to raid the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry to gain access to weapons and start a war in Virginia to end slavery. His actions were treasonous.

While other famous abolitionists of the period viewed Brown as a martyr, in truth he was a man unwilling to honor the democratic process of debating, voting, organizing and protesting to effect change. No society can remain stable or strong if individuals believe God supports their right to disregard the democratic process and use violence to get what they want.

Most troubling to me is that while no one is arguing to sanitize the history of Kansas, such a prominent mural of religious extremists in the Capitol is a painful reminder that lawmakers and the governor have too frequently listened to the voices of religious zealotry in Kansas when it comes to governing. There is no denying how the collusion between religion and politics in Kansas continues to make a mockery of good government.

I am afraid Curry's mural has become a proud, symbolic painting for the religious zealots in Kansas to march forward in their righteousness like old John Brown. We desperately need a mural in Topeka that glorifies reason over superstition and secular government over a Christian Theocracy.


Post your own comment here


Do you want to read more? You've only just scratched the surface at the Kansas Free Press. We have so much more to read! Nearly all of the pieces published here are timeless and relevant, regardless of when the articles were first published. To discover more, please take a look at our Table of Contents or go back to our Front Page.


Our sponsors help us stay online to serve you. Thank you for doing your part! By using the specific links below (clicking through from our site) to start any of your online shopping, you are making a tremendous difference. By using the shopping links provided on a Kansas Free Press page, you are directly helping to support the Kansas Free Press:



About This Page

This page contains just one story published on November 11, 2012. The one written previous to this is titled "Using Your Voice: At the Heart of the Struggle" and the story published right after this one is "We Need a Healthy GOP!"

Our most current stories are always updated on our Front Page.

Other Archives

Interested in other topics? You may wish to poke around in our Table of Contents to find other sections and archives.

Do you want to explore pieces written by specific authors? You can find archives for KFP writers by reviewing our complete Directory of Authors and Writers here.

Recently Featured Stories

My Response As a Kansan to Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti has come on board The Nation magazine to fill in for Katha Pollitt as the feminist columnist while Pollitt is on leave to write a book. I've found reading Valenti's columns thought-provoking and insightful. She often takes …
Of Angels and God's Dogs

There might be a whole group of us out there--people who value our relationships with animals on a par with our ties to people. "Get over it--it was just a dog" does not resonate with us. Our society places …
Of Angels and God's Dogs

There might be a whole group of us out there--people who value our relationships with animals on a par with our ties to people. "Get over it--it was just a dog" does not resonate with us. Our society places …
Roots of the n-word

While N-word dialogue has slackened following Saline County Commissioner Gile's use of it recently, the word still has great power. So, let's look inward at the N-word. To reach a much deeper path to understanding, simply go to Ad …
Corporate Tax Reform

Basehor, Kans.--For an interesting twist on the corporate tax debate, look at Alan Sloan's opinion in the April 29 issue of Fortune Magazine. In all of the froth about corporate taxation, neither proponents of tax reduction, nor corporate critics, …

News and Opinion





Get Connected

See our FB page!
Subscribe for free!
[Feeds & Readers...]
Follow Kansas Free Press on Twitter, too!
Make Kansas Free Press your home page!

Journalists, sign in.

We're reader supported!

Whenever you use the specific links below to begin any of your online shopping, a portion of your sale goes directly towards the support of this site.

Tech Depot - An Office Depot Co.


Our sponsors help us stay online to serve you. Thank you for doing your part! By using the specific links above (clicking through from our site) to start any of your online shopping, you are making a tremendous difference. By using the shopping links provided on a Kansas Free Press page, you are directly helping to support the Kansas Free Press.

Thank you for your help!

Notices & Policies

All of our Kansas Free Press journalists are delighted that you are here. We all hope that you come here often, sign in and leave us comments, and become an active part of our community. Welcome!

Our writers are credentialed after referral to, and approval by, the editor/publisher of KansasFreePress.com. If you are interested in writing with us, please feel free to let us know here. We are always looking for Kansans who want to write about Kansas!

All authors here retain their own copyrights for their original written works, original photographs and art works. They welcome others to copy, reference or quote from the content of their stories, provided that the reprints include obvious author and website attribution and links to the original page, in accordance with this publication's Creative Commons License.

Our editor primarily reviews stories for spelling, grammar, punctuation and formatting and is not liable or responsible for the opinions expressed by individual authors. The opinions and accuracy of information in the individual stories on this site are the sole responsibility of each of the individual authors. For complete site policies, including privacy, see our Frequently Asked Questions. This site is designed, maintained, and owned by its publisher, Everyday Citizen Media. The Kansas Free Press, KansasFreePress.com, and Kansas Free Press are trademarked names.

© Copyright, 2008-2012, all rights reserved, unless otherwise specified, first by the respective author, and then by KFP's publisher and owner for any otherwise unreserved and all other content.