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Nonviolence Won The Battles, Not The War

The Jewish community I've been part of for the last ten years is called Havurat Shalom. All services at the Havurah are lay-led by the members. Each year, I usually lead one of the big services on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. This year I led Shacharit, the morning service, which is quite long. Havurat Shalom, which was founded in 1968, was central in creating a Jewish religious counter-culture. One of the things Havurat Shalom and other places brought to alternative Judaism was the idea that Jewish observances should be relevant to the experiences of the participants. One way that folks do this is by relating meaningful, non-Jewish sources to Judaism. In the last couple of years, one thing I've been doing along these lines is relating things I've learned about Civil Rights Movement history to the themes of the Jewish High Holiday season. Below is something I wrote for the service I led yesterday.

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Last year, when I was leading a service on Yom Kippur I looked for spiritual messages in some of the powerful moments when the moral authority of nonviolent resistance overcame violent and aggressive evil. For example, I looked at one of the amazing stories from the SCLC’s campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Dr. King describes a moment when Police Commissioner Bull Connor had ordered his men to open fire hoses on a large group of protesters. As King tells it,

Bull Connor’s men, their deadly hoses poised for action, stood facing the marchers. The marchers, many of them on their knees, stared back, unafraid and unmoving. Slowly the Negroes stood up and began to advance. Connor’s men, as though hypnotized, fell back, their hoses sagging uselessly in their hands while several hundred Negroes marched past them, without further interference, and held their prayer meeting as planned. (Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait, 71)

Stories like this one are important; they communicate the real power of this movement and give us a visceral reminder of its importance in our nation’s history. But I also worry about stories like this that give the Civil Rights Movement such mythic dimensions. I worry that many people have come to believe that the successes of the Civil Rights Movement are due only to the moral convictions and the heroic fortitude of the protesters. The protests, however, had a very specific, crafted intent, "the surfacing of tensions already present," in the words of Dr. King.

To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion. regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out into the open where they cannot be evaded . . . to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation . . . [so that] the pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause." (quoted in David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: MLK, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 228)

What is more, the surfacing of tensions already present was sometimes of greater importance than the purity of means we usually suppose. In the last phase of the Birmingham protests in May of 1963, the SCLC conducted protests where the assumption was that onlookers who were not participating would most likely incite the Birmingham Police to violence. Wyatt Tee Walker, the SCLC’s Executive Director at the time, made no excuses for these tactics when he talked about them later: “I didn’t believe in provocation—unless the stakes were right.” Or as Andrew Young, another close advisor to Dr. King, put it: “The movement was really about getting publicity for injustice . . . the injustice was there under the surface and as long as it stayed below the surface, nobody was concerned about it. You had to bring it out into the open.” (264)

This is not meant as an exposé of the SCLC but rather as a way to see that even in situations that are generally understood as hallmark successes of the Movement, nonviolent resistance may not have been enough to overcome the repressive violence of Southern racism.

In an earlier struggle, led primarily by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in Albany, Georgia, in 1962, there was some unplanned violence on the part of protesters. James Forman, who was SNCC’s Executive Secretary, tells of a move by SNCC and local leaders in Albany to defy a federal injunction against protest marches:

We began working with Reverend Wells, a grass-roots preacher who had been helpful to us in the past. We discussed the injunction question with him; he agreed and began preaching to the people. The result was a night march, led by Reverend Wells after a stirring address. Over one hundred people filed out from the church, moved by the experience of that night. They were arrested and violence broke out. The black youth of Albany began to stone some whites. The police marched in formation through the black community and some of them were stoned.

The next day Dr. King issued a statement on his own. . . . When I arrived at his house the next morning, the press had already been called. I saw the statement, repudiating the local blacks and asked him not to do this. The whites were responsible for the violence and people were only reacting to a long history of violence and repression. But my arguments had no effect. . . .

[T]he statement was issued and Dr. King’s reputation for nonviolence was upheld. (James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 275)

In this story, Dr. King felt he had to uphold his reputation for nonviolence rather than make a statement that acknowledged the frustrations of local community members who lived day to day with repressive violence from whites.

At a pragmatic level, King’s ability to raise money for his organization depended on his nonviolent reputation, and he was under great pressure from President Kennedy and from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to project an image of African American resistance that was wholly nonviolent.

It may sound like I’m making a case against nonviolent resistance, but I’m not. My point is that there were times when the need—which may have been unavoidable—to express commitment to nonviolence hid from view just how bad our problems with racism were. I believe that the persistence of the narrative of a nonviolent overcoming of violent repression has kept our country from facing the depths of the problem as it existed 40 years ago and the depths of the problem as it exists today.

Teshuvah is the process of turning and returning in order to make things right. In response to our collective and individual failures, we have to ask: What tactics have been working? How far have they gotten us? In getting this far what have we failed to see? What work is there still to do? Why are we so attached to our current ways of doing things if they are not getting us where we need to go? What new tactics must we devise?

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