The vi­o­lence of non­vi­o­lence

Don’t push Black Lives Mat­ter to be pas­sive, writes Out­look’s Si­mone Se­bas­tian. The civil rights move­ment wasn’t, ei­ther.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Si­monesNews Si­mone Se­bas­tian is an editor for Out­look.

Black Lives Mat­ter protests have pro­duced one spec­ta­cle af­ter another. Peace­ful demon­stra­tions in Bal­ti­more and Fer­gu­son, Mo., were fol­lowed by ri­ots in which po­lice and ac­tivists clashed. Many Amer­i­cans, weaned on tales of how 20th-cen­tury civil rights lead­ers used non­vi­o­lent re­sis­tance, crit­i­cize to­day’s ad­vo­cates for “ex­treme” tac­tics and ac­cuse them of in­cit­ing vi­o­lence. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, Alveda King, called BLM’s meth­ods in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Mike Huck­abee said the civil rights leader would be “ap­palled” by BLM’s strat­egy: To ad­dress racial in­jus­tice, “you don’t do it by mag­ni­fy­ing the prob­lems,” he said.

But mag­ni­fy­ing the prob­lems was King’s key strat­egy, and he re­ceived the same ad­mon­ish­ments. Protesters who marched in the streets of Amer­ica’s most staunchly racist cities and towns were at­tacked by po­lice dogs, their cloth­ing was tat­tered by high-pres­sure fire hoses, and their lives were taken by po­lice of­fi­cers’ bul­lets. Alarmed by what they saw, eight lib­eral, white cler­gy­men wrote a public state­ment in 1963, call­ing King’s move­ment foolish and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. They sym­pa­thized with his cause but said his ac­tions were too ag­gres­sive, too dis­rup­tive and drove peo­ple to vi­o­lent upris­ing. The cler­gy­men urged black Amer­i­cans to re­ject King’s lead­er­ship and adopt peace­ful means to achieve racial equal­ity. King’s “non­vi­o­lent” move­ment, they said, was any­thing but.

King’s re­sponse, writ­ten while he was de­tained in Alabama, was the fa­mous “Let­ter From Birm­ing­ham Jail.” He wrote that, in fight­ing racial in­jus­tice, the goal of his demon­stra­tions was “so to dra­ma­tize the is­sue that it can no longer be ig­nored.” In other words, vi­o­lence was not some­thing that sim­ply hap­pened to ac­tivists; they in­vited it. Vi­o­lence was crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of the 1960s civil rights move­ment, as it has been to ev­ery step of racial progress in U.S. history.

As much as BLM’s op­po­nents and sup­port­ers— who in­sist that “this ain’t yo mama’s civil rights move­ment” — dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from the 1960s ef­fort, these two his­tor­i­cal mo­ments have a lot in com­mon. Both have been op­posed by more than half of Amer­i­cans, both have needed vi­o­lent con­fronta­tions to at­tract na­tional media at­ten­tion, and both have been crit­i­cized for their com­bat­ive tac­tics. Whether in the 1960s or the 2010s, the ag­gres­sive dis­rup­tion of Amer­i­can race re­la­tions has caused the same anger and fear— from North­ern­ers and South­ern­ers, from blacks and whites, from lib­eral “al­lies” and racist ad­ver­saries.

To­day, King is re­mem­bered for “I have a dream” and “the con­tent of their char­ac­ter.” For our pur­poses, he’s about non­vi­o­lence, turn­ing the other cheek and lov­ing thy en­emy. In con­tem­po­rary text­books and col­lec­tive mem­ory, his was a non­con­fronta­tional, even pas­sive ap­proach.

But the civil rights move­ment wasn’t seen as non­vi­o­lent in its day — and for good rea­son. The most jar­ring ev­i­dence of this came just a month af­ter King’s Birm­ing­ham jail let­ter. In May 1963, move­ment or­ga­niz­ers as­sem­bled black chil­dren, some still in pig­tails, to march through the streets of Birm­ing­ham and con­front Bull Con­nor’s vi­o­lent po­lice force. It was a con­tro­ver­sial tac­tic within the move­ment, but or­ga­niz­ers must have rec­og­nized that im­ages of beaten and cow­er­ing chil­dren would af­fect hearts, force a re­sponse from of­fi­cials and move the move­ment to­ward its goals.

“They couldn’t have been ig­no­rant of the ter­ri­ble re­sponse,” says King bi­og­ra­pher and New York Univer­sity his­to­rian David Lev­er­ing Lewis. “King and his in­ner cir­cle ap­pre­ci­ated the prob­a­ble cer­tainty of vi­o­lence on the part of the es­tab­lish­ment to trig­ger re­sponses that they wanted, in terms of leg­is­la­tion and poli­cies.” The chil­dren called it “D-Day.”

Con­nor didn’t dis­ap­point. He at­tacked the marchers with Ger­man shep­herds and ba­ton­wield­ing po­lice­men. Con­nor’s army fun­neled hun­dreds of chil­dren and teenagers into over­crowded jail cells. Still, the kids re­turned to the streets the next day. And the day af­ter that. Mal­colm X, whom history treats as the move­ment’s vi­o­lent al­ter ego, crit­i­cized King for the event, say­ing that “real men don’t put their chil­dren on the fir­ing line.” King, on the other hand, called it “one of the wis­est moves we made.”

The Chil­dren’s Cru­sade changed the­way the move­ment was cov­ered by the press. Where the crush­ing ef­fects of seg­re­gated schools hadn’t won hearts, where bru­tal, state-sanc­tioned beat­ings of hymn-singing black men and women hadn’t gained sym­pa­thy, the na­tion couldn’t ig­nore the im­ages of chil­dren re­coil­ing from the raised ba­tons of sneer­ing po­lice of­fi­cers. Only the most dis­tress­ing type of vi­o­lence worked.

This was King’s strat­egy. “Free­dom is never vol­un­tar­ily given by the op­pres­sor; it must be de­manded by the op­pressed,” he said — an ag­gres­sive and con­fronta­tional stance that Amer­i­cans re­jected at the time and have for­got­ten to­day. Most peo­ple, in­clud­ing North­ern­ers, op­posed King’s March on Washington, fear­ing that it was a call to upris­ing. A Gallup poll con­ducted in May 1963, the same month as the Chil­dren’s Cru­sade, found that 46 per­cent of Amer­i­cans held an un­fa­vor­able view of King. The only public fig­ure more dis­liked in the poll was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. By 1966, more than two-thirds of Amer­i­cans had an un­fa­vor­able view of the civil rights leader.

Black Lives Mat­ter doesn’t fare much bet­ter: In a Septem­ber PBS-Marist poll, 59 per­cent of white Amer­i­cans said BLM is a dis­trac­tion and, in re­sponse to a sep­a­rate ques­tion, 41 per­cent said it ad­vo­cates vi­o­lence (16 per­cent said they were un­sure whether it does).

King, like­wise, faced ed­i­to­ri­als ad­mon­ish­ing him for pro­vok­ing ri­ots and iso­lat­ing those sym­pa­thetic to his cause with his “ex­ces­sive” demon­stra­tions. Pro­gres­sive white Amer­i­cans, who distin­guished them­selves from the “big­ots and hate­mon­gers” in the South, turned against King when he came into their de facto seg­re­gated neigh­bor­hoods to protest racist hous­ing prac­tices — in much the same way Bernie San­ders sup­port­ers slammed the “ex­treme” tac­tics of ac­tivists who took the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date’s stage in Au­gust to de­mand that he ad­dress sys­temic racism.

Even black Amer­i­cans crit­i­cized King’s strat­egy. In re­sponse to a demon­stra­tion that turned vi­o­lent in Mem­phis in 1968, a black man penned a de­ri­sive let­ter to King, blam­ing him for the death of a 16-year-old boy who was shot by a po­lice of­fi­cer in the chaos that fol­lowed the protest. “I know that you think that you are help­ing all of us Ne­groes,” the­man wrote, adding: “Af­ter know­ing the hon­est truth about this and many other deaths caused by your calm ri­ots, we as a body had rather not have any thing else to do with you or your so called right­eous ri­ots or bet­ter, right­eous mur­ders.”

Sim­i­larly, many have held to­day’s move­ment re­spon­si­ble for the burned build­ings, bro­ken win­dows and po­lice and civil­ian deaths that fol­lowed protests dur­ing the past year. Yet history shows that this vi­o­lence is the in­evitable con­se­quence of chal­leng­ing the racial sta­tus quo.

Public opin­ion of King turned 180 de­grees in just two decades. In 1986, he was given a na­tional hol­i­day, and a year later, more than three-quar­ters of white Amer­i­cans had a fa­vor­able view of him, ac­cord­ing to Gallup. As Oak­land Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor Sheldon Ap­ple­ton has noted, our col­lec­tive ig­no­rance is largely to blame. Just 30 years af­ter the March on Washington, 57 per­cent of white Amer­i­cans ad­mit­ted know­ing lit­tle or noth­ing about the event. By that point, it was eas­i­est sim­ply to be­lieve that racial jus­tice had been achieved peace­fully and that the civil rights move­ment had solved our racial prob­lems.

No won­der so many to­day dis­miss the need for another civil rights move­ment and con­trast BLM’s ag­gres­sion and vi­o­lence with the ear­lier move­ment. “It’s white­wash­ing not just King the per­son, but also of what the move­ment was chal­leng­ing and how vi­cious the op­po­si­tion

was,” says his­to­rian Jeanne Theo­haris, who notes that Rosa Parks has re­ceived sim­i­lar treat­ment. “We’ve made them com­fort­able to us. They make us feel good about our past.”

Cer­tainly, non­vi­o­lence was a cen­tral theme in King’s rhetoric — and a kind of spir­i­tual phi­los­o­phy. The preacher was heav­ily in­flu­enced by Mo­han­das Gandhi, and he called non­vi­o­lence the only moral means for fight­ing op­pres­sion. But he learned that, as a tac­tic, non­vi­o­lence was use­less with­out vi­o­lence.

That les­son came in Albany, Ga., where po­lice chief Lau­rie Pritch­ett or­dered his of­fi­cers to ar­rest civil rights protesters peace­fully, with­out bully clubs or fire hoses. As a re­sult, Albany’s streets re­mained placid; the town pro­duced no dis­turb­ing im­ages to gen­er­ate na­tional at­ten­tion and pres­sure its of­fi­cials. Af­ter seven months of demon­stra­tions, start­ing in late 1961, Albany re­mained as seg­re­gated as it was when ac­tivists ar­rived. “This is when he [King] be­came con­vinced that he . . . had to find a gut seg­re­ga­tion­ist who would think noth­ing of clubbing black peo­ple on the head,” Gene Roberts, who cov­ered the civil rights move­ment for the New York Times, re­called in a recorded in­ter­view by the Newseum.

That’s when the move­ment moved to Alabama and con­fronted Bull Con­nor.

It’s rare that so­cial progress comes with­out force — typ­i­cally vi­o­lent force. Gay and trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans fought po­lice and ri­oted in New York and San Fran­cisco to over­throw ho­mo­pho­bic poli­cies. Vi­o­lent la­bor ri­ots helped end un­safe work con­di­tions. Slav­ery in the United States ended only af­ter the dead­li­est war in the na­tion’s history.

We re­mem­ber, even celebrate, the by-anymeans-nec­es­sary grit of the peo­ple who ul­ti­mately made Amer­i­can lives bet­ter in these his­toric mo­ments. But when it comes to the Amer­i­can fight for racial equal­ity, we bury the truth about the tac­tics that are nec­es­sary for progress. We’ve con­vinced our­selves that racism can be erad­i­cated pas­sively, with­out ag­gres­sion or vi­o­lence. “As Amer­ica pro­gressed, vi­o­lence was al­ways part of it,” says St. Louis Univer­sity his­to­rian Ste­fan Bradley, who stud­ies black youth ac­tivism. “No other move­ment in history has ever been held to these stan­dards.”

Black Amer­i­cans have peace­fully protested po­lice bru­tal­ity for decades. It was a reg­u­lar sub­ject of hip-hop lyrics dur­ing the 1980s. Non­vi­o­lent protests fol­lowed nu­mer­ous deaths of un­armed black peo­ple in the 1990s and 2000s: Amadou Diallo in 1999, Sean Bell in 2006, Os­car Grant in 2009. But no sub­stan­tive changes in po­lice oper­a­tions re­sulted.

King, we’ve con­vinced our­selves, is proof that any lin­ger­ing racism can be elim­i­nated with­out tu­mult. Yet the civil rights move­ment was one of the most vi­o­lent mo­ments in Amer­i­can history. As the Rev. Jesse Jack­son re­calls, the tac­tics of the 1960s de­mon­stra­tors “worked very well be­cause the vi­o­lent forces against us weren’t able to jus­tify at­tack­ing us.” While the ac­tivists’ non­vi­o­lent re­sponse mag­ni­fied the bru­tal­ity, the ag­gres­sive re­ac­tion of to­day’s protesters has proved ef­fec­tive as well. “The po­lice over­re­ac­tion, the tear gas — that’s what made Fer­gu­son,” Jack­son says.

Black Lives Mat­ter has more in com­mon with the civil rights move­ment than we’d like to ac­knowl­edge. It fights the same in­jus­tices and en­coun­ters the same re­sis­tance. The truth is, if you op­pose Black Lives Mat­ter’s tac­tics, you would have ab­horred King’s.



Above: A 17year-old demon­stra­tor is at­tacked by po­lice dogs in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., in­May 1963.

Right: In July 1963, fire­fight­ers aim hoses at civil rights protesters in Birm­ing­ham.

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