A few years ago I visited Birmingham, Alabama for the wedding of two friends.
One day, I spent some hours in Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute, and the arboreal, stunning square across the street, Kelly Ingram Park, now part of the National Parks Service, a story told in sculptures.
Each takes you on a walk, a literal walk, through the horrid history of racism in the United States–especially in the south–and the courage of the resistance that gathered in Birmingham and those other southern cities with names that ring in our ears.
I paused for a while before I typed “courage” up there because it’s a weak word to describe the people who, led by Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, faced sickening violence, physical and verbal, with the strategy of passive resistance.
I didn’t go south in the 1960s, I didn’t join civil rights activists like Mickey Schwerner, the son of our much beloved high school biology teacher, Anne. I didn’t have the guts to put myself in the danger faced by Birmingham’s kids who, in 1963, made up The Children’s March.
Yet up in the northern suburb of New Rochelle, my family got newspapers. And watched some TV. So my memory of the transformative, dangerous protests that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is of the images I saw every day in the papers and on TV.
I saw photos and film of black children being pummeled by water cannons wielded by armored cops, black people attacked by police dogs and police batons, white faces contorted with hatred, whites screaming at stoic blacks.
What struck me most heavily was the contrast between the ugly and violent protesters and the calm, passive resisters.
Those photos. Nothing could have better and more forcefully convinced me of the absolute right and good on one side, and the absolute wrong and bad on the other.
That was the ultimate power in passive resistance, non-violent protest: a dual portrait of human nobility and human monstrosity.
A few hours ago I read on Twitter that one of the white supremacy leaders has declared some sort of White Lives Matter gathering to be held in Texas. (Although I just saw on Twitter that the university which was to, uh, host this event has canceled it.)
There will be more of these events. I hope, I trust that counter-protesters will learn the lesson I learned from the 1960s protests: you don’t bring weapons, you don’t bring violent hatred, because violence diminishes your righteous position and corrupts it into personal, adolescent rage, a sort of selfishness.
I’m still impressed by the courage of people willing to face groups whose DNA is racist violence. I’m less impressed when you bring your own violence and weapons into that arena. When you do, you muddy your own message. You don’t want to do that, not to the clear good cause you carry on your shoulders.
Why don’t you go to Birmingham, first? There’s a great deal to learn about the higher purpose of our existence.
UPDATE 8/18/2017. A comment to today’s New York Times article about the “antifa” group, beautifully stated and much terser than mine:
Martin Luther King recognized the immense power of non-violent civil resistance that Mahatma Gandhi used to lead the successful struggle against British rule in India. It was that kind of non-violent resistance during the civil rights movement that was successful in changing hearts and minds – and laws here in America. And it was because the protesters were beaten, spit upon, fire hosed, and all while they were peacefully resisting. This was broadcast on the nightly news and in the papers and the tide turned in favor of the oppressed. The Antifa group will not garner any sympathy or support by mimicking the actions of their evil opponents. I would urge them to read the history of not only Gandhi and King but of the Velvet Revolution and of Ms. Gbowee in Liberia, and of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers in California.