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Nonviolence And Mississippi
By A. J. Muste
This article is in the first instance an appeal to those, Negro and white, who are taking part in the movement for civil rights in the United States today. It is an appeal that in considering how to deal with the agonizing and complicated problems which now beset its the emphasis shall be on nonviolence, i.e. on maintaining the spirit of nonviolence in the movement and in devising apt and imaginative applications of a basically nonviolent strategy.
During the long hot summer of 1964, about which we had been warned or with which we had been threatened, the violence and tension were focused largely on Mississippi where three young men who volunteered to work in the COFO1 campaign for voter registration and related objectives simply disappeared. It was in Mississippi that Medgar W. Evers, the devoted and highly respected organizer of the N.A.A.C.P., was brutally assassinated. No one has been convicted of that crime in the courts of that state. It was in Jackson, Mississippi, that the widow of Medgar Evers at his memorial service said to her fellow-Negroes and fellow-workers, “We must not hate, we must love”. What I am trying to say in what follows is that this statement must be the light that guides the movement in the dark passages and the motto on its banners as it moves into the light.
I have on many other occasions spoken to the white people in the United States, including, the South, and including the churches, about their sin, guilt, provincialism, brutality, addiction to violence, apathy, deep-rooted prejudice. There is no time here to do this once more and I trust it is not necessary in order to avoid misunderstanding.
To urge that the emphasis now be on further developing a nonviolent strategy rather than abandoning or diluting it, is not to urge retreat or “moderation” or reducing the militancy of the struggle. It is meant to be, and in my opinion can be in practice, exactly the opposite, viz. the means to maintain and intensify the dynamism and drive of the integration movement.
Whatever one’s explanation or political evaluation may be, the fact is that on the part of Negroes and their supporters the struggle for civil rights has been to an amazing degree nonviolent. The violence has been overwhelmingly on the part of the police, sheriffs, and other supposed guardians of the peace and individuals or groups who “took the law into their own hands”, when Negroes demonstrated peacefully. Typically, this happens when the police give the green light to such elements and indicate that they will be looking the other way if demonstrators are attacked, churches and homes bombed, etc. Violence on the part of Negroes has in fact been negligible.
But beyond this, the contemporary movement as typified by Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, and multitudes of others, has as such been committed to a nonviolent or Gandhian strategy. The large older-established organizations, such as the Urban League and N.A.A.C.P., if not in the same sense committed to nonviolence, have certainly not in any way resorted to violent methods. Throughout the world, the integration movement as a whole has been hailed as by far the most notable instance of nonviolent strategy since the Gandhian movement for Indian independence. Moreover, many of the leaders and rank and file members have identified themselves as believing in nonviolence not only as sound social strategy, but as a way of life and as the basis of that “beloved community” in which human beings can be truly human, the society to which the prophets have pointed and which in some very deep sense is at the heart of the civil rights movement. “Deep in my heart; I do believe, we shall overcome some day”―overcome not the white man but that which stands in the way of man.
It can also be safely asserted that such gains as have been made by the civil rights movement have come about basically by the use of the nonviolent approach, whether by the more conventional tactics of N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League or by direct action and civil disobedience. All these tendencies have insisted that the issue was a moral one and have appealed to the conscience of leaders and people. The moral revulsion which swept the country when firehouses and cattle prods were turned on women and children and four girls were murdered in a Birmingham church on a Sunday morning had a good deal to do with the (belated) introduction of the civil rights bill and its passage, and with the important upsurge of college youth in support of civil rights. One need only reflect for a moment to realize how different the reaction would have been if incidents like those just mentioned had taken place in the context of a series of pitched battles between Negroes and whites, or between Negroes and the police. The sporadic violence into which Negroes were occasionally goaded at the sight of the brutality wreaked on women and children was, on the other hand, understandable and did not dilute the moral revulsion, in spite of all the efforts of segregationists to build up an image of Negro violence and to put the onus of “provoking” violence on peaceful demonstrators.
As I have argued in another paper2, regardless of whether this happens to be in line with one’s philosophical or religious views, the integration movement as such in the United States and under existing circumstances has to remain essentially nonviolent. More specifically, this means, on the one hand, making use of such means as the nation’s legislative, judicial and executive set-up provides for removing discrimination and achieving conditions which promote equality. It means, on the other hand, that when direct action is resorted to, as it certainly has to be, when Negroes and their supporters “take to the streets”, the action has to be essentially along nonviolent or Gandhian lines.
In the first place, indispensable as the demand for freedom by the Negro people and their refusal any longer to submit to discrimination or to be intimidated are, it is apparent they cannot achieve even a measure of genuine, as against token, integration by themselves. They have to have the support of labour and other elements. The integration movement does not yet have that labour support except in a very limited degree. To, take to violence (“self-defence” so called) under these circumstances, is self-defeating and adventurist, a gesture of frustration, rather than facing up to a problem.
More basically, as an increasing number of scholars and activists are coming to understand, civil rights can be achieved only as part of a “triple revolution” which takes in also the issue of “jobs” in the era of automation and cybernation, and the issue of “weaponry” or peace in the era of nuclear warfare. Even if one thinks that this “triple revolution” should be carried through eventually on the historic pattern of revolutions based on a violent transfer of power (a position which I do not hold), then one is still confronted with the plain fact that no such revolution is imminent in the United States, nor does any agency to effect such a revolution and “take over” after it occurs exist. To behave in a sector of the total field, such as civil rights; and in a specific location, such as Mississippi, as if one were in such a revolutionary period is, again, irrational and suicidal. It is, therefore, suicidal for integrationists in the rightful and necessary pursuit of their own concrete objectives to be diverted from helping to build the forces that will achieve the “triple revolution” into the adventurism of violent shortcuts.
There is still one other aspect of the situation which I shall merely allude to―though it is of utmost importance in my opinion. I mean the deep psychological (largely irrational) roots of racism and of many aspects of the relation between the races in this country. It is the knowledge as well as verdict of any reputable expert that such sicknesses are not cured by violence or in an atmosphere of violence.
The slowness of the progress towards genuine integration, the frustrations encountered in achieving obvious and substantial results through demonstrations or even such mild activities as voter registration have led to increasing demands for police protection and especially for the intervention of federal marshals and federal troops. This is now a central problem. Before tackling it, however, it may be necessary to comment on a proposal that is, I understand, receiving some consideration, viz. that civil rights demonstrators have to provide their own “security” or “protection” in some situations, especially the bad ones like Mississippi. This means that voter registration volunteers themselves or people who accompany them should be armed and prepared to shoot in self-defence. As a pacifist, I of course abhor and reject such a proposal. Apart from that, I have argued in a previous paper already mentioned that this proposal cannot be equated with “self-defence” on the part of an individual in the general context of American law and mores. It is a social or political tactic. I think it could well be that in some specific situation at a given moment the fact that a person threatened with attack in a rural county in the South had a gun and indicated he was ready to use it might for the time being help him from being abducted or killed and enable him to get away. But to adopt a general strategy of arming the volunteers or their guards, or arming the Negro community, is an entirely different proposition. It is not something to play games with. How far are those who advance this kind of proposal willing to go? Such proposals seem to me either to assume a “revolutionary” situation which we do not have in the U.S. or to spring out of psychological frustrations which should not determine the political policy of a movement. It should, of course, be understood that none of the leading civil rights organizations entertains such proposals.
Calling in Federal Forces
The idea of calling in the state or federal police is another matter. From their point of view it is the clear duty of the police and civil authorities generally to protect peaceful demonstrators and people engaged in lawful missions from lawless attacks by individuals or mobs. This is the dictate of common sense and of a sense of social justice. It has repeatedly been backed by the Supreme Court, so it is the “Law of the land”. It seems obviously legitimate to bring this responsibility to the attention of the civil authorities. People who are not pacifists and hold the prevailing views about police protection would seem to have a clear duty to exert themselves to secure proper exercise of the local police authority and failing that to work for their replacement in such ways as society has provided.
The question whether nonviolent activists should seek such protection and make federal intervention, including use of the military establishment, a major part of their strategy―which has often lately tended to be the case―is another matter.
The safety of a defenceless individual at the moment he is being attacked is a matter of the deepest concern to any other individual present who is not bereft of his reason. Insensitivity at this point, as shown quite often recently not only in connection with racial struggles but in other cases of brutal attack, and not only in Mississippi but in New York, is a shocking manifestation of psychic illness. However, the question whether a particular means does in fact “protect” the individual and others has also to be faced and the proposition that violence does in fact overcome violence may be and needs to be questioned.
Nonviolent volunteers may go into a conflict unarmed of their volition and in that sense would be defenceless. But the fact is that the individual soldier in large numbers, even in “brush-fire wars”, not to mention the bigger ones which the big nations wage, is also defenceless. He is not guaranteed safety, quite the contrary. What he has is the possibility to inflict mutilation or death also on others. But this is precisely what the civil rights volunteers do not seek.
To turn to certain specific problems: what does the record show about the result of bringing in outside forces, which is what it comes to since the problem arises because local authorities do not discharge the normal function of maintaining public order? The record hardly provides unequivocal support for outside intervention. In Cambridge, Maryland, what seemed to have happened was that “public order” had been imposed in a superficial sense and in the civil rights struggle a stalemate, not progress, had ensued. In the State of Arkansas, in which Little Rock is located, no outstanding results have been achieved in the civil rights struggle which can be charged to the armed intervention to which Eisenhower finally resorted, having consistently failed to take his stand on civil rights as a moral issue. Witness John W. Fulbright, the highly intelligent Senator from that state, pleading that he “had” to vote against the civil rights bill, or Faubus, the segregationist Governor of Arkansas, would defeat him. I recall, to look at the matter from an opposite angle, that the one period when there were notable public defections from the ultra-right organizations was during the moral revulsion against hate and violence which swept the country at the time of the Kennedy assassination.
When it comes to a situation like Mississippi, I find that those who are close to it and whose judgment I rely on point out that “limited violence” or bringing in a limited number of federal marshals is not likely to meet the situation. Thus a relatively conservative organization such as N.A.A.C.P. calls on the federal government to take over control in Mississippi, which means the use of the armed forces. If such an approach leads to anything like open, even if limited, civil war, what will have been gained? How will the cause of civil rights, in that state, have been advanced, not to mention the healing of the deep psychological sickness with which many are afflicted?
What does “taking over” eventually mean? Putting federal marshals into every city, town and rural area? How will they enforce law against the will of the local population? And which laws will they apply, those passed by the Mississippi legislature? If not, how do they abrogate or set aside such laws? Does the federal government appoint a new legislature, install a new governor, or provide for new elections in which the “right” kind of officials are chosen? If so, how is that to be managed? The more one reflects on what can come out of an effort to take a state over by such means, the more fantastic the idea seems. Can this really be identified as “democratic process”?
If the U.S. army in effect “rescues” the civil rights cause in Mississippi, or appears to, what effect will that have on the thinking of Negroes and their supporters if the Johnson administration is drawn deeper into the war in Vietnam and perhaps to a larger war in Southeast Asia generally? What attention, for that matter, are civil rights workers giving at this time to the crucial situation in that part of the world?
If in the face of all such considerations, such projects as COFO had been carrying on in Mississippi and other dynamic efforts are pursued, we are driven to ask the question whether a more thorough and “pure” application of the nonviolent approach should not be devised.
Without having been able to carry on a series of discussions about them in advance, I set down a number of suggestions as to what a more earnest and consistent application of nonviolence would or might mean in a situation like Mississippi.
Applications of Non-violence
(1) The non-violent approach is in one aspect based on the use and efficacy of moral force (Gandhi’s term was “soul-force”) as against physical force or violence. President Johnson has made on the whole an admirable record in the matter of civil rights. He has even ventured into places like Atlanta to plead that integration is a moral issue. He has exerted moral force in this way. Subsequently he was urged in various quarters to send troops into Mississippi. Sending troops is an essentially political act. An essentially moral act would have been for President Johnson not to send troops but to take upon himself responsibility for going to Jackson personally in order to confer with Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr., to meet the editors of the State, the clergy, perhaps the lawyers, the civil rights volunteers, and so on. This would not be primarily on the technical issue of law enforcement, but on the basic human and moral issue with which not only Mississippi but the whole nation is now confronted, according to Mr. Johnson’s own declarations.
(2) It is foreign to nonviolence to seek a victory over other human beings in a war in which one group of humans is arrayed against another. The aim is not to conquer and humiliate the “enemy” but to change his mind and will. The system or institutional pattern in which people are involved―whatever the prevailing pattern of domination and subordination may be at a given time―is conceived as something which traps, harms, degrades all who live under it. This means, as Martin Luther King, Jr. has put it more than once, that the aim of the civil rights movement is to “liberate” the South, not only to liberate Negroes. I am well aware that there are many in the current movement in Mississippi who share these views. However, they are by no means universally held and I am suggesting that more effort be put into cultivating this attitude in all civil rights workers and in trying to communicate to Mississippians that this is the spirit which motivates the movement for equality.
(3) I take it that Quakers are doing this to some extent, but my own experiences recently in Georgia in some sections of which conditions are not too dissimilar from Mississippi, have given me a strong conviction that more effort should be put into attempts to set up communication between members of the white and Negro communities. This involves a patient effort to locate the members of the white community, clergy and lay, who have a measure of sensitivity and intelligence. They are consequently inwardly disturbed, but ordinarily for motives creditable and not creditable, they do not act and speak. Yet time and thought need to begin reaching these people. They will largely determine in the end what happens in the local community. I do not mean by that to rule out or deprecate the role of the “outside agitator”, having been one most of my life. The polarization and absence of communication are to be reckoned with as a fact; they must not be accepted as the basis on which warfare is to be waged.
(4) One hesitates to raise the point of “protection” and “defence” in face of the brutality so often witnessed in many Southern localities. And I have repeatedly pointed out that it is the duty of the authorities, by their own professed standards and the law of the land, to provide peaceful demonstrators with protection. It is legitimate for citizens who accept these premises to insist that the protection be provided. But it is not a part of the nonviolent strategy or ethos to ask for protection which ultimately rests on violence to restrain violence. Nonviolence means to go unarmed and in that sense to be defenceless. This also means not having arms―one’s own or that of the police or the army, in reserve somewhere. It means to take suffering upon oneself and to avoid inflicting it in any way on others.
I am, therefore, proposing that the practice of calling on the police and especially on troops for protection be abandoned by the civil rights movement. To be consistent I think we have to adopt that course in relation to Mississippi. Let the authorities face up to their own responsibilities but let us operate on our own assumptions and our own nonviolent ethic. I firmly believe myself that it may well be the only way in which Mississippi can in fact be disarmed and transformed.
There is a sense in which young people ought to have “protection”, though they have made it magnificently clear that they are not looking for an easy life. Is it out of the question to ask decent Mississippians to act as escorts for each team of volunteers? Or the parents or other relatives of the volunteers might act in that capacity. Or clergy in pairs from various parts of the country. I gather that some of these ideas are already being considered.
More Aggressive Nonviolence
There are two final observations. One of the reasons, in my opinion, why nonviolence has become obnoxious to many Negroes is a pattern often followed in civil rights struggles. When the struggle in a city like Birmingham reaches the point where a significant breakthrough seems imminent, the powers that be become tougher and more violent. They accuse the nonviolent leaders of provoking violence and that any blood if it is shed will be on their hands. The latter are deeply troubled. The outcome is the setting up of a bi-racial committee which is to work out steps toward integration. The struggle is thus relaxed or even initially abandoned. And nothing happens. I suggest this pattern be avoided in the future. The struggle should be maintained until some specific steps towards integration are assured.
Secondly, the typical struggle involves large numbers but is usually at a low level of intensity, in the sense that leaders and rank and file expect to be bailed out promptly, with the result that very large amounts of money are tied up indefinitely which has a crippling effect financially on future activities. A sounder non-violent strategy would be to refuse to put up bail or spend large sums on trials, to remain in jail, for those able to do so to fast or go on hunger strike, and so on. This in turn would deeply stir the community, Negro and, at least to some extent, also the white, and would contribute towards the political force and effectiveness of the movement.
What has appeared up to this point was written before the adoption of the civil rights bill. It is obviously too early to make a definite analysis of the effects of its adoption and of the way it is or is not being enforced. Nevertheless the first impact of the new situation, the post-adoption period, has occurred and we cannot avoid trying to make a provisional assessment of what this means for future strategy.
It seems to me clear that the adoption of the bill, whatever its shortcomings, is a notable gain. We have only to think for a moment where we should now be if a filibuster were on and the bill had failed of adoption. By no stretch of the imagination can the adoption be laid to violence on the part of the integration movement. It is the fruit of a militantly nonviolent struggle.
There are dramatic instances such as that of the businessmen and Mayor Allen C. Thompson of Jackson, Mississippi, standing together “against the White Citizen’s Council in a decision to comply with the Civil Rights Act”. Peaceful integration of hotels, motels and restaurants has, “to the surprise of many of the Mississippians”, as the New York Times reports, actually taken place. I think of another example, close to myself and the whole nonviolent movement, in which such organizations as the War Resister’s League and the Committee for Nonviolent Action are involved, viz. Albany, Georgia. Reports from the scene there reveal that there also integration of hotels and eating places has taken place without incident, and the atmosphere is on the whole relaxed! It is difficult for anyone who was close to the ordeal which the Quebec-Washington-Guantanamo Peace Walkers experienced in Albany earlier in 1964 to believe that this could possibly be true; yet it is.
Without going into further detail, it is clear that in so far as any conclusion can be drawn from the latest developments they point to the application of a militant and imaginative strategy of nonviolence. They certainly give no support to an abandonment of that strategy.
Violence as the Enemy
The civil rights movement has its own task and must deal with the problems and dilemmas which spring directly from it. However, its leaders and many of its members already are aware of the fact that civil rights in a meaningful and decisive degree can be achieved only in the context of a Triple Revolution which will also solve the problem of jobs and the problem of peace. Both have to be solved, obviously. for all; there is no such thing as a solution for some and not for others.
The problem of “peace” relates to the relations between nations in the era of nuclear technology. But it relates to much more. Any force of “violence” that has social dimensions and implications takes on new evil meaning because it may “escalate” into war, get out of hand and bring on the danger of extinguishing civilization, if not the race itself. Furthermore, as daily events testify, alongside refinements in modern culture, we are confronted with frustration, alienation, swift change apparently beyond human control, and consequently with violence in many forms. It can no longer be considered a minor matter for those seeking to combat the “anti-human” in any form whether violence is to be resorted to for the sake of a seemingly good and necessary end or whether a decision for or against violence itself is now basic for every human being and especially for committed devotees of any “cause”.
The great French novelist, philosopher and hero of the Resistance, Albert Camus, some time ago came to the conclusion that the latter is indeed the case. In 1947 he wrote an essay which states the challenge to break with murder and violence and suggests how that may be done. His is a voice that will be listened to not without a measure of respect on both or all sides of the lines that divide men into warring camps and sometimes lead to a proliferation of violence on many levels which make us wonder whether mankind is dominated by a wish to die. The essay is entitled “Neither Victims Nor Executioners”.3 Crudely put, it points out that in a world saturated in violence we may not have a choice as to whether or not to be victims but we can still choose not to be executioners. “For my part”, he concludes, “I am fairly sure that I have made the choice....I will never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder.” The basic decision that must be made, he elaborates, is “whether humanity’s lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for survival to later generations better equipped than we are”.
Camus in 1947 assumed that only a few at first would take the course of rejecting murder as a social instrument and embracing nonviolence, the course of “discovering a style of life”. Even so he felt that precisely such a minority would exhibit a “positively dazzling realism”. But may it not be that in the nuclear age multitudes on both sides of barriers may indeed be driven both by necessity―the need for bare survival―and by moral passion, to commit themselves to nonviolence?
Even Camus a decade or so ago could not reject the possibility of such a development and accordingly concluded his essay with this beautiful expression of hope that “the thirst for fraternity which burns in Western man” might be satisfied. He wrote: “Over the expanse of five continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which granted, the former has a thousand times the chance of success than the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his hope on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward.”