On February 18th, 1965 C. T. Vivian, a member of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, lead a march on the Perry County Courthouse in Alabama. Tensions were running high. For two dangerous, bloody years African Americans* in Alabama had been struggling against voter restrictions. The restrictions were often Kafkaesque in their implementation. Alabama was nominally complying with the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by allowing African Americans to register to vote, but employed a number of tricks to prevent them from actually doing so. For example, they limited both the number of days one could register and the number of black people who could assemble; if three black people attempted to go through the slow registration process at the same time, they were arrested.
The march was interrupted by brutal police opposition. They dimmed—some say shot out—the street lights and attacked the protesters. One reporter was injured so badly he was forced to stop covering The Civil Rights movement. During the attack, a young, black Vietnam vet named Jimmie Lee Jackson sought refuge in a nearby cafe. He was followed by a State Trooper who shot him in the stomach. Jackson lived for 8 days before dying of complications and infection. We live in an era where people simply do not die of gut injuries, but they are slow, agonizing deaths. For those organizing what came next, the stakes were nothing short of death.
What came next, of course, is one of the defining moments in American history. SCLC helped organize a march from Selma to Montgomery, most immediately to demand Governor Wallace seek justice for Jackson, but more widely to call for protection for all African American citizens who sought to vote. The march was set for March 7th, and on March 6th Wallace announced that it would not take place. He was worried, in a way that echoes down to us, that the protesters might block traffic. He ordered the protest be cleared by any means.
The 7th was, not by any sort of coincidence, a Sunday. The marchers drew from Christian faith and principles to animate their organizing. SCLC practiced radical non-violence, which is much more than just simply maintaining peaceful protest. “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action,” King wrote in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King later rejected that he had an absolute obligation to maintain the peace:
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
It is a strategy that, frankly, the denizens of the social media age should understand. Quite crudely, nonviolence is a publicity stunt. You call the press and you put your body on the line so as to say, “I believe this so thoroughly I will not resist state power; I will leave you to judge if this power is being used in a just, humane way.” Do not mistake my simplification for saying it is a mere publicity stunt—the violence that its practitioners endured stands as a testament to their convictions.
Which brings us back to the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma. On March 7th, 1965, hundreds of people arrived to march illegally. They were greeted as they crossed into town by dozens of armed police. The police used billy clubs and tear gas to subdue the marchers, who did not physically resist. 17 were hospitalized and many more were injured. America was horrified; this was the impetus for Johnson pushing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in many ways marked the turning point for the Civil Rights Movement.
In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the word “non-violent” conflated with “peaceful”. The Woman’s March on Washington was peaceful, as it collaborated with D.C. authorities to ensure the march followed the law. I do not raise this as a criticism, per se; peaceful protest certainly can achieve some ends. But no one was putting their bodies on the line. Likewise, I’ve seen criticism of the UCLA protests that seem to suggest it would have been appropriate to engage in non-violent protest instead. I worry that people saying that don’t understand what they are calling for. Physically (and illegally) occupying Milo’s podium to prevent him from speaking would be non-violent so long as the people involved did not resist arrest. But I sense what people mean here is that the protesters should have stood meekly at the side. There is a real case to be made that when talking about a White Supremacist who uses his platform to encourage violence against individual students by name, the University has abdicated its responsibility to safe and legal discourse. Even if you reject violence, you should not pretend that King’s philosophy supports following every letter of the law or each campus dictum.
If what you support is unyielding deference to authority, leave non-violence out of it.
*This term was not yet in use.