Saturday, May 21, 2011

Bernard Lafayette on King's political leadership for nonviolence

For the previous post on the Freedom Riders, see here.

On the fiftieth anniversary of his freedom ride in Montgomery, Bernard Lafayette told an important part of the story – one of the interweaving of the possibility of justified violence and nonviolence – in Montgomery. Attacked by a racist mob, Lafayette's ribs had been broken, James Zwerg and John L. Lewis had suffered concussions. But Lafayette was able to go the meeting at the First Baptist Church the next night where King exerted a voice for justice and for calm.

Lafayette tells a striking story. King had heard that Montgomery taxi drivers, vital in the bus boycott, were mobilizing with weapons to attack the white mob outside the church which threatened to burn it - 1500 people inside - to the ground. Since King had led that boycott, he was intimately connected with all the people in the movement and had heard of the plan. The drivers and others had acquaintances and loved ones in the Church. They were prepared to stand up and take out the racists, broadly, an act of justice, though as Lafayette implies, they were experienced in the use of violence, and much of the crowd, awful as it was, was probably not. Further, while windows had been broken, the people inside the Church had not yet been attacked. But this was the rare possibility of genuine "preemption."

Nonetheless though theirs would have been an act of self-defense of the black community, it would, as Lafayette says, have ended the Freedom Rides very differently, affected the whole nonviolent movement in the South. For armed self-defense in the South would perhaps have been put down by force and infiltration. Consider what happened to the Black Panthers in California and the North, a great movement of self-defense against the barbaric police of Oakland and later in cities across the country. But the Nixon administration simply murdered lots of the Panthers (Fred Hampton and Bobby Hutton in their beds in Chicago, among many others). Violent self-defense is manly and just, but against a powerful state, it often brings down a greater - and plainly evil, wantonly murderous - violence, with less political result.

King recruited 10 nonviolent volunteers for a mission not publically specified in the Church; they marched out untouched by the racists, persuaded the cab drivers to put down their weapons, and came back. The "Freedom Riders" film in the American Experience does not capture this. Instead, it makes out the King-Robert Kennedy connection as overly crucial, King simply as very anxious about what would happen. But he wasn’t. Somehow, the spirit communicated to him (as in his vision that his family would not be harmed when he prayed for guidance after the attack Lafayette mentions below). He acted against a violent preemptive reprisal against the mob even though just, took his chances with calm resistance, even as the stained glass windows were shattered, the glass splintering into the Church, the mob howling outside, that the Federal Government could intervene in a lawlike way – for the first time, under the Kennedys - and sustain the people there and the freedom rides. About his judgment, I should note: if the cab drivers had attacked, they would have driven off and killed some in the mob, but the violence against the people in the Church and the subsequent violence of the police would have been considerable, the chain of mutual reaction difficult to calculate but not promising. King's whole purpose was to defeat segregation and break that chain...

The film shows King as speaking for justice and calm. But it also shows him refusing to go on with the Freedom Riders, some referring to him sarcastically as “de Lawd.” King does not come off so well in the movie. In contrast, Lafayette’s story of King’s fearlessness, his willingness to do in the situation what was necessary to dissuade violent self-defense and preserve the hope and example of a nonviolent movement even at mortal risk, shows him as a great and farsighted leader. As with any sensible person, King didn’t always know what to do, listened a lot to others, responded to fresh circumstances and movements from below. In Birmingham, he told his SCLC comrades and friends that he had no strategy out of an impasse just then, but he knew he could get arrested with the demonstrators, so he put on his blue jeans and a plain shirt, went out to a rally and spoke, marched, was arrested, and then wrote his amazing letter from the Birmingham City Jail. Lafayette saw his powerful political leadership here (as did many people in the Church, as did many freedom riders but perhaps not the sarcastic ones – it is for each of us to make the decision to do what he or she can, not to criticize others for not putting themselves between us and even the greatest danger just then), and it is worth taking in…

King had a complex and changing relationship with violence, seeking to subdue its role, to produce egalitarian change and healing in the life of society. But as the great poet Adrienne Rich says, the word violence glares at us out of the word nonviolence; read Chris Hedges, War is a force that gives us meaning, and you will see how terribly addictive violence, the adrenalin flows, the immediate and enduring threat of death is; if you add this to the initial, human psychological reaction to fight the unjust, to see justice as vengeance, the spell of violence may be clear enough. To subdue violence...

In 1965, King went to Watts at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s request to chill out the rebellion (attacks on property are not violence against persons, though of course not a part of a serious nonviolent movement). King thus, in effect, supported state violence against the rebels. Yet he talked to teenagers who asked him: what about the violence of the American government in Vietnam? How can you tolerate their violence and ask us to be nonviolent? As King would say at the Riverside Church two years later, "I realized then that I could not speak to them effectively of nonviolence without speaking out against my own government – the most violent government in the world." See here, here and here.

James Meredith who alone had integrated the University of Mississippi, starting a civil war of the racists and a federal occupation, later went, by himself, courageously, on a walk from Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi. Many are the solitary journeys, starting with John Woolman, the Quaker in 1754 who journeyed throughout the South to persuade other Quakers of the sin of slavery…Meredith was shot by a hidden Klansmen (the Klan’s record of spiritual cowardice is hard to beat –if those who physically nailed Jesus to the Cross were the Christians, so is the Klan…) and could not go on. Following the lead of Diane Nash and the veterans of Nashville during the Freedom rides, King and others came to take over Meredith's march to Jackson. Among those who came were the Deacons for Self-Defense – an armed group that would protect the marchers from being attacked from the shadows again.

Nonviolence sometimes requires the greatest risks and sacrifices (King ultimately gave his life). But in conditions of fascism, sometimes heading off the fascists (either with state force, if the Federal Government and Supreme Court have some decency as was true in Montgomery for riding buses and the freedom rides, or with locally mobilized, civilian force is necessary. Walking through rural Mississippi, King then was not unwilling to have the possibility and protection of violent self-defense.

In Birmingham, Malcolm X had come to support King: “If you don’t listen to that brother in there, you will have to deal with this brother out here…” Stokely Carmichael had led SNCC in the direction of Black Power (differing from King during the Jackson march, he also rightly led in mass canvassing and voter registration as in the origins of the Black Panthers), and was later invited by King to come to the Riverside Church in Harlem for his speech on Vietnam. Stokely tells a funny story about this in “Eyes on the Prize”; he joked around with King about not being able to come because of "heathen" busy work for the movement, but when told by King what the sermon would be about, showed up in the first row. About the war in Vietnam as it were, King went with the freedom riders (murdered in Memphis a year to the day, April 4, 1968, from when he gave that speech)...

King did not set himself over and above other leaders (unlike Gandhi who sometimes fasted against his followers) and tried more sharply, while fighting for nonviolence and love, to be inclusive, to tame the violent. Even though heading a large nonviolent movement, King's address to the elite often mentioned the possibility of rebellion and repression that he sought to head off (without the underlying danger of violence as a response to injustice, nonviolence perhaps would not succeed).

King was faced with this danger even at the last in Memphis, where some of the strike’s supporters, in frustration, threw rocks at the police…

Nonviolence, as in Madison recently, can work to isolate an authoritarian governor and his capitalist masters, and has led to recalls of Republican reactionaries without being met by state or state-sponsored mob violence (in his conversation with a phony David Koch, Governor Scott Walker said he had thought about employing provocateurs and the police against the demonstrators, but had decided against it). But that situation was unusual. In even darker cases - the civil right movement, the relief ship the Mavi Marmara moving toward Gaza, or in Tahrir Square and the resistance in Egypt - 700 nonviolent protestors and other innocents have now been found murdered by the police and the army - nonviolence works through the willingness to break unjust laws and policies, and to accept legal, mob or military punishment, even death, for doing so. In Montgomery, King set out to defend and vindicate the freedom rides and nonviolence, and took a considerable risk, for himself and others, in doing so. He did the right thing as Bernard Lafayette’s words, so many years later, at last convey.

Nonviolence, by the Egyptians and Palestinians and their international supporters, including Jews like me - all who are outraged at the injustices in the Middle East, particularly toward the Palestinians, and want to secure a decent resolution, one where all peoples, including the Israelis, can live in peace and individual freedom - is a secret to changing the Middle East. The world is threatened by continuing American wars and violence(Obama’s words two days ago were wise on the possibilities of nonviolence, especially in affirming a Palestinian state, and talking of how a Palestinian and an Israeli who had lost children could rise above this to try to reach a political agreement in which no more children would be sacrificed – but government drones, commanded by Obama, still kill innocents in Pakistan, the occupying army still marauds in Afghanistan, the state of Israel still murders nonviolent demonstrators, those who were born in Palestine, at its border fences…), global warming, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing nuclear disaster at Fukushima – nonviolent movements are a secret to changing the world, to making human and humane life a continuing possibility on this planet. Nonviolence or co-annihilation, King said. We all might take in what King and the nonviolent movement did in America a little more.

The Siege of the Freedom Riders

Published: May 19, 2011

FIFTY years ago today I arrived in Montgomery, Ala., on a Greyhound bus. I was 20 years old and was there as one of the Freedom Riders, a racially mixed group, mostly college students, who were riding buses through the South to test the Supreme Court’s recent ban on segregation in waiting rooms and restaurants that served interstate travelers.

I was among 22 Freedom Riders on that bus. We well knew the dangers we faced in Alabama: other riders had already been attacked in Anniston and Birmingham. And indeed, when we stepped off the bus a group of hooligans surrounded us. Three of my friends, William Barbee, John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, were beaten unconscious. I suffered three cracked ribs.

The next evening, the Freedom Riders and 1,500 other people gathered at the First Baptist Church on Ripley Street, in downtown Montgomery. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offered us words of encouragement and support on our journey for equality.

As the sun set, a mob of whites began to gather around the church. As the crowd grew in number — eventually as many as 3,000 people appeared — it also grew in vitriol and hostility. The crowd began hurling rocks and bricks through the stained-glass windows, and tear gas drifted through the sanctuary. While outside people flipped over cars and set them on fire, inside Dr. King tried to reach Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to request federal protection.

All of us gathered in the church were uncertain about our safety; I certainly felt in danger. Many feared that the church would be bombed. After all, not only had Dr. King’s house been bombed with his wife, child and a family friend inside during the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, but the very church where we were gathered had been bombed in 1957.

There was little we could do but wait and pray. We sat in the church and sang freedom songs and hymns that strengthened our spirits and soothed our fears. Occasionally, I took a deep breath to get a little relief from the pain of my fractured ribs. At times I wondered whether it would be better to be safe in jail or to be there, in the church, surrounded by a vicious mob.

Eventually Dr. King announced that he had a special mission for which he needed volunteers. The main qualification, Dr. King said, was a commitment to nonviolence. He didn’t need hotheads, or people overcome by anger. Needless to say, no one rushed the pulpit. After my experience at the bus station, I didn’t feel I could handle another mob, so I held back, too.

However, about 10 or 12 people eventually did volunteer for the mission, which Dr. King then explained. Reports had come in over the phone that a group of black men, led by armed cab drivers, were mobilizing at a nearby service station with plans to attack the mob and rescue the people trapped in the church. Some of them, no doubt, had relatives and friends in the church.

Black cab drivers were an important part of the local civil rights movement. They had helped out in the car-pooling efforts during the bus boycott. When the boycott ended, some of them formed their own cab companies to serve black customers. But they were more than just drivers: they saw themselves as part of a security force as they moved passengers around the segregated city.

Some of these men were war veterans; some were experienced hunters, and were probably more experienced with weapons than their white antagonists. Had these men attacked the mob surrounding the church, the story of the Freedom Rides would have had a much different ending.

Dr. King’s mission, then, was to persuade the cab drivers to abandon their rescue attempt, lay down their weapons and go home. His small group gathered at the front door of the church, lined up in twos. Then they walked out the doors, as if they were marching.

There was an unforgettable silence as they passed out of the church. We watched as they walked through the howling crowd; I was sure I would never see them again. And yet, for all the yelling, the mob didn’t touch them — such is the power of nonviolence.

About an hour passed. Suddenly, out of the darkness, they all reappeared, unharmed. Dr. King had convinced the cab drivers to abandon their mission. This was no small miracle. Dr. King showed through this act of courage in this most harrowing moment of the campaign that fear was not a factor for him. It was, at that point in the Freedom Rides, the greatest lesson he could have offered.

Early the next morning, with the help of the Alabama National Guard (which arrived after hours of pressure from Mr. Kennedy on the Alabama governor, John Malcolm Patterson), we were able to leave the church unharmed. Dr. King’s courageous mission to our would-be rescuers prevented great bloodshed and kept the Freedom Rides on its nonviolent course. And it showed us what the Freedom Rides, and the movement overall, were about.

The man and the movement were behind the decision by each of us to stand up and take action, even if it required extraordinary courage. If we were ever in doubt, he reminded us why we had chosen to leave the comforts of our homes, college campuses and family and friends to travel to unknown places fully aware of the possibility that we’d never return. Dr. King showed how quiet strength can overcome violence, how courage can overcome fear, how peace can overcome the most awful hate.

Bernard Lafayette Jr. is a distinguished senior scholar in residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

*The argument between violence and nonviolence is not an easy one. The Chinese Communist Revolution succedded and freed millions of peasants, even fighting for equality for women. Gandhian nonviolence eventually defeated the British, but against the efforts of Gandhi and Badshah Khan, India and Pakistan were divided, and the untouchables – the harijans or children of God as Gandhi renamed them - and the poor were not freed. The comparison does not simply or obviously favor India.

In addition, the troubles in China, the capitalist counterrevolution growing within the revolution, are not simply a result of its violence, but of political or strategic errors, many of which attempted to gain certain goods (industrialization as an end to impoverishment) by mimicking Soviet anti-democratic conduct (see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 8).

Yes, violence contributes to the harshness of revolution in the face of vicious external attack, the unwillingness to work out reconciliation. But South Africa, too, has not fully dealt with the problem of the poor. It is a great and nonviolent social revolution against apartheid, one which succeeded in healing the grotesquely murderous and humiliating divisions of racism without executing or exiling the criminals. This was an enormous, and in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, shining achievement. See Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness. But a nonviolent social revolution to overcome poverty - exploitation - remains an as yet unrealized possibility. Still, a sophisticated defense of nonviolence, in terms of these and other examples, is possible - if so great a revolution succeeded nonviolently against apartheid, why is a further one not possible? - and necessary. For as the last paragraph of this post suggests, in our international situation, the possibilities of just violence for decency, for instance, John Brown, have pretty well exhausted themselves.

**As in the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court is often an institution of bigotry, and the four reactionaries on the Roberts court push steadily in a tyrannical direction one again – they are the South’s and the Republican authoritarians’ revenge against the Civil Rights movement and the unfolding of American equality and decency.

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