Struggle, Organization, and the Meaning of Non-Violence
I had the honor and pleasure to be invited to give a few remarks at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church just about a block away from the Pratt campus. The highlight of the evening was certainly the wonderful and talented musicians who performed with just the right mix of skill and passion. The selections and performances were fitting for both the space and the occasion.
The panel consisted of Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Ms. L. Joy Williams, the President of the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP, and myself. Obviously, it was a rather humbling experience for me. We were given four readings from Dr. King and asked to use them as starting places to reflect on three questions:
Dr. King’s non-violent approach was controversial in his day among activists. Is his approach relevant to our present situation? If so, how can it be commended? If not, what would be both a proper and effective alternative?Because of time, these notes approximate what was said and in more detail than voiced that night. In that respect, if I was not so clear in my shortened version, perhaps this will provide a bit more clarity.
Is that dynamic at work still today? If so, what interests are promoting it? In our current situation how can people with similar economic interests be brought together?
Where is the principal resistance to racial justice now coming from? How can it be countered or neutralized?
The texts of the readings and the program are included below these remarks.
Introduction and Response to First Reading: from “The American Dream” (delivered on July 4, 1965 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA.)
Thanks so very much for inviting me to speak today.
I have been thinking about your question and it seems to me that there are at least three things I could suggest from my perspective as an academic who grew up in a small town call Darlington, South Carolina during the 1960s and 70s. Who was in legally segregated public schools until the middle of the 3rd grade. So the words we have been asked to reflect on were for me just a part of daily life, rather than something to praised on one day and then forgotten the rest of the year.
To me, three things about this passage stand out:
I. The statement that violent action is both “impractical and immoral.” The passage elaborates on this theme, reminding us that the strategy of non-violence did not emerge only from moral values, but also from the practical need to find a strategy of confrontation when your oppressors have a monopoly on the means of social violence, from the small arsenals that individual gun owners amass to the use of the courts and prison system.Instead, despite these constant provocations, we should follow King’s example. We must decide on the times, places, and forms of our “noncooperation with evil” and not allow them to lure us into their various traps. This is not easy, because the provocations are constant and range from a sideways glance to outright murder.
II. The passage points out how there has been, I think, a profound misunderstanding about the meaning of non-violence. One result of the appropriation of the Civil Rights movement by those on the right is that non-violence has become somehow equated with passivity. That somehow only the Nationalist or separatist threads of the Civil Rights movement offered active resistance. But let’s be clear in our own thinking: “Non-violence” is never passive. It is active “Noncooperation” with the forces of domination. As such, Non-violence is really confrontation, the disruption of everyday life, direct action, and occupation. These are all nonviolent responses to violence, authority, and power.
III. In keeping with this idea of non-violence/noncooperation, King urges us to be active and not reactive. The forces against freedom will constantly try to provoke us to respond, to spend all of our time responding to them. That is how Trump uses Twitter, and what is behind his attack on John Lewis. Distraction, diversion, and reaction.
So the passage is a challenge to us to understand that we have to endure a long struggle for freedom that will no doubt continue on long after us all, but that can’t get there without us. It is also a declaration that despite their brutality and cruelty, the enemies of freedom will ultimately fail, but only if we make the ethics/morality of the movement central to how we live our daily lives, then the forces of reaction can not win. That is a challenge, too, when the other side does not hesitate to use its violence and what King called its “propaganda agents” to attack and denigrate any attempt to move the country forward.
Just to mention that active does not mean just protesting, but it also means discussions like these, work in the arts, writing, criticism, and analysis. We need to be just as active and engaged in thinking about what it means to be a movement for freedom as we are in marching.
Response to Second and Third Readings: “Where Do we Go From Here?” (delivered on August 16, 1967 at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, Atlanta, GA. and “Our God is Marching On! (speech delivered on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama).
Like I said about the first reading, nonviolence is not without its real costs in lives. In fact, as the passage indicates, the modern struggle is rooted in the violence of the Civil War and the dismantling of Reconstruction. I do not think it is any coincidence that Dr. King’s final words were “ Mine eyes have seen the coming of the Glory of the Lord” – the first line of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and a song sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body.
In the same way, it is not a coincidence that his perhaps most quoted speech was made in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Keep in mind how King (and those around and before him like Frederick Douglass, A. Phillip Randolph, James Farmer, Ida B. Wells, Baynard Rustin, and Mary McLeod Bethune, to name just a few) never allowed the opposition to control the meaning of national symbols and texts. He was always questioning their commitment to those words and ideals, but he never put ours in question. [Ironically, this is what the right-wing has distorted in their attempts to co-opt King’s work].
Part of the genius of his rhetoric was that he seized on the idea that in reality the very story of the development of those American ideals is really the story of abolitionism, Civil Rights, and of universal human rights. Those symbols no longer mean what they meant before when the country was founded, because these struggles have given them new meanings. This is what Lincoln said at Gettysburg and why King stood at the Lincoln Memorial during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” to speak again of the possibility of a new covenant. If we give this up, we give up our own history as well as handing the right a powerful weapon that we ourselves forged through our own struggles and one that belongs only to us.
For a practical example, I suggest that just as they were deployed at Standing Rock, recruit and put veterans -in uniform- front and center whenever possible for the powerful symbolic and political value it would have. As with the 1963 March For Jobs and Freedom, rally at the monuments and historical sites. Claim them – they are rightfully ours, anyway – and use them as everything from sites of resistance to backdrops for press conferences. It is a way to simultaneously lay claim to the active legacies of those that struggled before our time, while sowing confusion on the other side, as they will have to actively confront their hypocrisies and violence.
[Deleted paragraph: Trump’s attack on Rep Lewis is just one example of the attempt to erase the history of struggle for freedom that actually made America greater, and replace it with a vision of a past that never existed. Remember that Trump supporters said that they want “Their” country back and that “their” country did not look like it use to. These are their fantasies, but they are there to erase or obscure the real history of struggle and fellowship.]
While sort of preparing for this, I came to read the speech by King’s own elder, A. Phillip Randolph, and here is just a bit of what he said then because it fits with these passages from King at the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom” and shows just how relevant they still are:
“We are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom. This revolution reverberates throughout the land touching every city, every town, every village where black men are segregated, oppressed and exploited. But this civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.... The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life. Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans.... that seek to strangle Congress. We here today are only the first wave.” August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
So for both practical and moral reasons, when we are taking action, we should be certain to not surrender the symbols of the America to the “Cultural appropriation” of the Right/Far-Right. That is what King means by a renewal of the kind of Populist movement that fought against Jim Crow.
This also means that we must vote despite the stubborn obstacles that are put in our way. [And I know Rep. Jeffries can tell you that a phone call to Congress (not a text or an email) gets attention.]
Response to Fourth Reading: from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (April 1963).
I think he is absolutely correct and those voices of moderation, which ironically often quote select passages from Dr. King, but never this one, are very much still with us. (Ted Cruz or Fox News released statements explaining the meaning of MLK day as being just this kind of moderation! I know, it is hard to read such things some times!) The voices for that kind of moderation are really just advocates for keeping things as they are, but they just sound a bit nicer. Sometimes compromise is necessary to move forward, but compromise does not mean moderation, just like nonviolence does not mean cooperation.
I would just mention that this should make us think about the different groups and organizations in the movement and how they relate to each other.
Dr. King was but one of several leaders of several independent organizations. They were in constant dialogue and they differed on strategy and tactics. The leaders and the organizations changed over time in response to the circumstances and we can learn many lessons from them. One that I think is most important is that just as there are many forms of action, there should be many different groups and organizations with a wide range of tactics. They do not need to be coordinated, but they should not denigrate one another, either.
|Bayard Rustin, Jack Greenberg, Whitney M. Young, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, unidentified.|
It is not either/or. We should never say things like “Malcolm X was the real militant, and King was not” or some sideways denigration of the “Mainstream Civil Rights movement” or of BLM, because each of these are part of the same struggle. Different times and different places demand different tactics, and you see this in the relations between the leadership and in the different campaigns waged by the main Civil Rights organizations during King’s life.
Dr. King and his fellow leaders differed on strategy and tactics, but they did all agreed that the goal of a true struggle for freedom was universal freedom. They also agreed that freedom could not wait, which is the sentiment that has united us all since the very day slavery began and will until the day when domination finally ends. Randolph also said in that same speech I already mentioned that:
“Those who deplore our militants, who exhort patience in the name of a false peace, are in fact supporting segregation and exploitation. They would have social peace at the expense of social and racial justice. They are more concerned with easing racial tension than enforcing racial democracy.”
And I think we know that there is a bright line from them to us: listen to Frederick Douglass speak in 1857 to this same issue:
“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”
Africa, Africa by Akua Dixon
Clarissa Howell, cello
The Rev’d Gerald W. Keucher
Life Every Voice and Sing
First Reading: from “The American Dream” (delivered on July 4, 1965 at Ebeneezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia.)
And I would like to say to you this morning what I’ve tried to say all over this nation, what I believe firmly: that in seeking to make the dream a reality we must use and adopt a proper method. I’m more convinced than ever before that nonviolence is the way. I’m more convinced than ever before that violence is impractical as well as immoral. If we are to build right here a better America, we have a method as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mohandas K. Gandhi. We need not hate; we need not use violence. We can stand up before our most violent opponent and say: We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail. We will go in those jails and transform them from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Somehow go around the country and use your propaganda agents to make it appear that we are not fit culturally, morally, or otherwise for integration, and we will still love you. Threaten our children and bomb our homes, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you.
But be assured that we will ride you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we will win our freedom, but we will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory.Read by Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez
Second Reading: from “Where Do we Go From Here?” (delivered on August 16, 1967 at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, Atlanta, Georgia)
Now, let me rush on to say we must reaffirm our commitment to nonviolence. And I want to stress this. The futility of violence in the struggle for racial justice has been tragically etched in all the recent Negro riots. Now, yesterday, I tried to analyze the riots and deal with the causes for them. Today I want to give the other side. There is something painfully sad about a riot. One sees screaming youngsters and angry adults fighting hopelessly and aimlessly against impossible odds. (Yeah) And deep down within them, you perceive a desire for self-destruction, a kind of suicidal longing. (Yes)
Occasionally, Negroes contend that the 1965 Watts riot and the other riots in various cities represented effective civil rights action. But those who express this view always end up with stumbling words when asked what concrete gains have been won as a result. At best, the riots have produced a little additional anti-poverty money allotted by frightened government officials and a few water sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. (That’s right) Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations.
And when one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments and they talk about guerrilla warfare. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard, and finally, the army to call on, all of which are predominantly white. (Yes) Furthermore, few, if any, violent revolutions have been successful unless the violent minority had the sympathy and support of the non-resisting majority. [Castro may have had only a few Cubans actually fighting with him and up in the hills (Yes), but he would have never overthrown the Batista regime unless he had had the sympathy of the vast majority of Cuban people.] It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American blacks would find no sympathy and support from the white population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves.
This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action. (All right) What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don't solve, answers that don't answer, and explanations that don't explain. [applause]
And so I say to you today that I still stand by nonviolence. (Yes) And I am still convinced [applause], and I'm still convinced that it is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country.
And the other thing is, I'm concerned about a better world. I'm concerned about justice; I'm concerned about brotherhood; I'm concerned about truth. (That’s right) And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can't murder murder. (Yes) Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can't establish truth. (That's right) Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate through violence. (All right, That’s right) Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that. [applause]
Third Reading: from “Our God is Marching On! (speech delivered on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama)
On our part we must pay our profound respects to the white Americans who cherish their democratic traditions over the ugly customs and privileges of generations and come forth boldly to join hands with us. From Montgomery to Birmingham, from Birmingham to Selma, from Selma back to Montgomery, a trail wound in a circle long and often bloody, yet it has become a highway up from darkness. Alabama has tried to nurture and defend evil, but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state. So I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral.
Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South1 to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.Read by The Honorble Laurie Cumbo
Fourth Reading: from “Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 1963)
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.Read by the Honorable Walter T Mosley, III
Three Excerpts from Frederick Douglass by Dorothy Rudd Moore
Andrea Powe, soprano; Robert Wilson, piano
Dorian Lake, baritone; Andrea Powe, soprano; Robert Wilson, piano
Mae Carrington, soprano; Robert Wilson, piano
The Honorable Hakeem Jeffries, U. S. Congress, 8th District of New York
Ms. L. Joy Williams, President, Brooklyn NAACP
B. Ricardo Brown, PhD, Professor of Social Science & Cultural Studies, Pratt Institute
Recognition of Honorees Receiving the Martin Luther King Community Award
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, presented by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz & Assembly member Walter T. Mossey III
Mrs. Alonta Wrighton, presented by Cythia McKnight and Adedemi Hope
Mrs. Lydia Cayasso, Ricky & Kendel Brackett, presented by Fr. Keucher & Andrea Gray.
The Honorable Bill de Blasio, Mayor of the City of New York
The Honorable Scott Stringer, New York City Comptroller (presented in person)
The Honorable Robert Cornegy, NYC Council Member for the 36th District
Music: Higher Ground, followed by an Instrumental Medley of Spirituals arrange and performed by Elmer Hammond, organ