Selma: A Gandhian Critique

ANGLO AMERICA, 26 Jan 2015

Timothy Braatz – TRANSCEND Media Service

Missed Opportunity

On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 people, from across the country, converged on Washington, DC, to demonstrate their support for the Civil Rights Movement. They filled the National Mall and listened politely to a slate of singers and speakers that peaked with Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Movement leaders then met with President Kennedy in the White House to discuss his proposed civil rights bill. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as this celebrated event was named, can be understood as a high point and culmination, the day a regional movement went national and mainstream. An enormous monument to King now stands near the Mall, between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, a testament to his significance as a truly national leader. Approximately one third of the March attendees were white—a display of racial accord perhaps unprecedented in US history—and organizers had arranged for the presence of well-known entertainment celebrities. Television networks broadcast the program live, the first time viewers could experience a King speech in its entirety. The message—of King’s speech and the entire event—was of racial harmony as a national value, a “beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” Less than eight years after the arrest of Rosa Parks had sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, she was standing center stage in the national capital, along with Fred Shuttlesworth, Bernice Johnson, John Lewis, and others who, in preceding years, had been brutalized for sitting or walking in the wrong places in southern cities. Then evening came, and they all went home. A quick departure was not the original plan, and there may be value in pondering what might have been.[1]

In the weeks after the Children’s March, protests had pervaded the country. People were on the move in the summer of ’63, and Kennedy felt he must act to prevent more “Birminghams.” Images of white policemen assaulting nonviolent black children reflected poorly on the Kennedy administration, and were perfect for use by Soviet propagandists as evidence of capitalist immorality. Kennedy weighed stifling the protests versus ceding to movement demands for stronger federal action against Jim Crow; in other words, act to decrease or increase civil rights—never an easy choice for a US president. He considered enacting “a reasonable limitation of the right to demonstrate,” but decided, instead, to announce support for civil rights legislation. He wasn’t ceding much, though, because he expected a filibuster by southern Democrats to block passage of any bill that outlawed segregation. (Indeed, two months later, to reassure southern whites that the administration wasn’t entirely in the desegregationist camp, Attorney General Robert Kennedy announced federal criminal indictments against the “Albany Nine” for picketing a white-owned grocery store.[2]) The president’s real intent was to redirect the movement’s energy into conventional politics. He hoped his televised announcement would bring calm and obviate more protests while the legislative process dragged along. Put another way, Kennedy was calling for reforms to preempt possible demands for revolution.[3]

Civil rights leaders, though, with a burgeoning movement behind them, were not settling for noble gestures and political delay. “We are on a breakthrough and need a mass protest,” King told his advisors. “We are ready to go on a national level with our protests.”[4] They discussed taking the Birmingham strategy to Washington, knowing that A. Philip Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council (NALC) was already planning a similar action. They would recruit thousands of volunteers to set up an encampment, hold marches, and stage sit-ins in the halls of government, essentially taking over the city until Congress passed the law.[5] Imagine if the SCLC, NALC, SNCC, and CORE had gone forward with such an open-ended occupation, if they had organized more than enough participants to fill the district’s jails, thus neutralizing the threat of mass arrests. Imagine James Lawson guiding the strategy sessions, Bayard Rustin working out the logistics, Bob Moses and Septima Clark training volunteers, King and James Bevel preaching in nightly mass meetings, Bernice Johnson leading the singing, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette leading carefully selected satyagrahis to occupy congressional offices and absorb police violence, and Diane Nash gracefully confronting the president. Imagine a nonviolent “dream team,” rather than just “I Have a Dream.” Then consider two possible outcomes: First, Congress might concede the campaign’s demands and pass robust civil rights legislation, confirming for observers a valuable lesson in democracy: mass, sustained, nonviolent action, more so than voting or letter-writing, is the way for those without great wealth to influence federal lawmakers. If you want real change, nonviolently overwhelm the capital. Second, echoing the 1932 attack on the Bonus Marchers, federal officials might order police and military forces to remove the protestors and clear the streets, possibly producing a display of state-sanctioned violence against nonviolent citizens that would make Birmingham’s police dogs and fire hoses seem tame by comparison.[6] In this case, the nationally televised lesson would be that the federal government is part of the problem, an obstacle to civil rights, and, thus, reform might be insufficient. If you want real change, get rid of the capital.

So, either empowerment of the masses or destruction of the myth of a genuinely democratic system, possibly leading to empowerment of the masses. For the Kennedy brothers—rich, white, northeastern, and seated atop the political class—neither option was appealing. The Kennedys may not have fully understood integrative power and moral jujitsu, but they knew that a nonviolent occupation of Washington would force them to take a stand. In typical Cold War rhetoric, they claimed to represent moral decency (and seemed to believe their claims), but had struggled mightily behind the scenes with movement leaders and southern governors—negotiating, manipulating, threatening—to avoid appearing in full support of the civil rights activists in their efforts against state-sanctioned violence in the Deep South. Now, they might have to choose between a nonviolent movement that held the moral high ground and the political structure that generated their wealth and power. They couldn’t have it both ways anymore, not if nonviolent intervention targeted the entire Washington ruling class rather than just the southern bigots. Forced to choose, the Kennedys most likely would have defended class interest—Clear the streets!—and the violent nature of the underlying political structures would have been revealed in the direct violence of government thuggery.

The Kennedy administration avoided that dilemma by nipping occupation plans in the bud. In late June, the president met with King, Lewis, Randolph, and other movement leaders, and presented himself as courageously committed to passing legislation: “I may lose the next election because of this. I don’t care.” He and his vice president insisted that traditional Capitol Hill deal-making was the only way to get the law passed, and they wanted their guests to support lobbying efforts. Again, the Kennedy strategy was to channel movement energy away from potentially revolutionary nonviolence and into conventional politics. Just as President Roosevelt, in 1941, asked Randolph to cancel the first planned March on Washington, Kennedy argued against the movement coming to town.[7] Street demonstrations, he assumed, would turn violent and be counterproductive: “We want success in the Congress, not a big show on the Capitol.”[8] Employing a carrot-and-stick approach, the president promised financial support to cooperative leaders, and threatened to arrest potential occupiers before they reached the city.[9] The movement representatives, aside from NAACP chief Roy Wilkins, were committed to an event in Washington—they couldn’t afford not to build on the Birmingham momentum—but struck a compromise. Instead of protests, they would hold a one-day rally that, by increasing national support, would serve to lobby Congress, but would not pressure or threaten anyone. There is an old saw claiming that the violent rhetoric of Malcolm X and other black nationalists forced government officials to cooperate with movement moderates like King.[10] But, in fact, just as German generals knew how to respond to violent resistance during World War II, government officials knew how to deal with violent blacks; they worked with moderates because radical nonviolence confounded and unsettled them even more. In convincing movement leaders not to occupy Washington, Kennedy had forestalled revolutionary action by promising support for reforms. The March on Washington wouldn’t be nonviolent intervention. It would barely be a march.

In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi went to the beach and gathered sunbaked salt in violation of the British monopoly on salt production in India—by itself, a simple act of civil disobedience, but Gandhi first organized a journey by foot. He informed the British viceroy of his plans, then set out, with eighty trained satyagrahis from his ashram, on a 240-mile trek to the sea. Along the way, he stopped in villages to explain his noncooperation campaign, to denounce British colonial rule, and to call on local officials to resign their collaborationist posts. Thousands of volunteers joined the satyagrahis, national journalists reported on their progress, and the suspense grew: When would they arrive at the coast? Would they really defy the law? Would the British try to stop them?

Years earlier, in South Africa, Gandhi had led Indian marchers in violation of racist border restrictions. A nonviolent march, he understood, can be powerful. First, there is the spectacle of it, the drama, as a large number of people walk knowingly into a dangerous situation. A march draws attention to a cause, attracts an audience along the route, and displays the courage and commitment of the marchers. Second, a march can be an act of nonviolent resistance and intervention, going where you are not wanted or allowed. Marchers are, essentially, daring the opposition to stop them, to show their violence in broad daylight. Third, a march symbolizes moving forward, delivering a message, and, in a world of violent armies, is readily understood as the taking of territory. Fourth, an extended march, with participants living together, sharing the hardships of life on the road, creates community, builds commitment, and attracts more volunteers. Marchers find themselves with time to think about what they are doing and why. If they stick it out, they gain a greater sense of purpose, belonging, and investment in the cause. All of this just by going for a long walk. The Salt March started with eighty, grew into the thousands, and set off a movement of illegal salt production in India.[11]

There have been a few actual protest marches to Washington—notably “Coxey’s Army” (1894) and “Cox’s Army” (1932)—but sometime in the early twentieth century, a march on Washington came to mean a large political demonstration that drew participants from across the country, no matter how they made the trip.[12] As such, the 1963 March on Washington did not fully reap the benefits of extended, collective, overland travel at walking pace. Individuals and small groups undertook remarkable pilgrimages—by train and bus, even on roller skates and by bicycle—and there was a collective and somewhat chaotic procession of less than a mile—a march in Washington—ending at the Jefferson Memorial. On the whole, though, the March was less an exercise in community-building and nonviolent resistance, more a political rally and media event.[13] The gathering certainly had power, it influenced many people, but as a march it was more symbolic than real. The dramatic build and taking of territory had come in sit-ins, freedom rides, and illegal street processions in the Deep South. (As nonviolent intervention, the Children’s March shared important characteristics with a Gandhi-led march.) The rally in the national capital was the symbolic arrival. It was a great day, but didn’t convince Congress to pass President Kennedy’s civil rights bill—the opposition from southern senators was too strong.

In November, though, Kennedy was assassinated, and his presidential successor, Lyndon Johnson, told Congress that the best way to honor Kennedy’s memory was with “the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Kennedy was handsome, charming, rich, eloquent, powerful, and white—the type of personage celebrated in US culture. A great many people considered his death, like that of his former lover Marilyn Monroe, an enormous tragedy. In exaggerating Kennedy’s support for the movement, Johnson was harnessing the integrative power of Kennedy’s death to the proposed legislation. The following spring, with the NALC threatening a nationwide, one-day labor strike to protest congressional inaction, northern Republicans finally joined northern Democrats to stop the southern Democrats’ filibuster and pass the bill. It seems that Kennedy’s death aided the movement more than Kennedy ever did while in office. Kennedy is still remembered as a “civil rights” president, but his influential opposition to direct nonviolent action had convinced organizers to make the March on Washington a one-day, nonconfrontational affair and, thus, a missed opportunity, as King eventually acknowledged. [14]

Unholy Alliance

In 1965, the SCLC organized a far more rigorous march—54 miles, from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery—taking their demand for black voting rights to the state capital. Many came from outside Alabama, including a sizeable contingent of church workers, but the majority of the marchers were locals.[15] John Lewis later recalled that, despite lousy weather and four long days on the road, “No one complained. No one got tired.” In the preceding years, Lewis had marched through the streets of Nashville, suffered a terrible beating on the Freedom Ride, and addressed the masses on the Mall, but Selma-to-Montgomery was, he said, “more than an ordinary march.” To me, there was never a march like this one before, and there hasn’t been one since. The incredible sense of community—of communing—was overwhelming. We felt bonded with one another, with the people we passed, with the entire nation.[16]

SNCC member Stokely Carmichael, who was critical of the SCLC for just marching through rural Lowndes County rather than organizing there, used the opportunity to recruit bystanders for later actions. On the fifth day, with the television networks providing live coverage, some twenty-five thousand joined the parade through Montgomery to the capitol building. On the capitol steps, King gave one of his finest speeches. In it, he quoted an elderly woman from the 1955 bus boycott who had declined a ride, saying, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”[17] This was the culmination of the Selma campaign—a campaign that led, four months later, to passage of the Voting Rights Act, which led to the registration of hundreds of thousands of black voters across the South. Still, the Montgomery march, like the March on Washington, was marked by compromise that muted the movement’s revolutionary potential.

The Selma campaign grew out of events in Birmingham. In September 1963, in response to the SCLC’s ongoing efforts to desegregate that city, Klan members dynamited the church where the Children’s March had originated, killing four little girls. In their rage, Diane Nash and James Bevel discussed hunting down and killing the bombers—nonviolent discipline can be difficult in the face of cowardly, vicious violence. Knowing that revenge would not further movement goals or honor the victims, the couple instead turned their righteous anger toward planning a wider campaign that would build to a mass occupation of Montgomery to demand black enfranchisement in Alabama. Like so many nonviolent strategists before and since, they had come to understand that a nonviolent army—columns of trained satyagrahis—was necessary to challenge the entrenched state. The dilemma posed by nonviolent occupation—concession or crackdown?—would diminish state authority and delegitimize state violence.[18] Nash typed a summary of their plan, which included “Marching and drills in command and coordination of battle groups….Practice in blocking runways, train tracks, etc.” She proposed “severing communication from state capitol bldg. and from city of Montgomery” by overwhelming the phone lines with calls and shutting down transportation arteries with parked cars and nonviolent occupiers. The Nash-Bevel plan received mixed reviews from King’s inner circle, but, fifteen months later, with the Civil Rights Act passed and its signatory, President Johnson, securely reelected, the SCLC leadership endorsed Bevel’s suggestion for a campaign in Selma to redirect the movement from civil rights to voting rights. In other words, King wanted the push for electoral reform in Alabama, but not the potentially revolutionary siege of Montgomery.[19]

The primary issue for the joint SNCC-SCLC Selma campaign was that blacks were unable to register to vote. In 1962, SNCC member Bernard “Little Gandhi” Lafayette had, almost singlehandedly, started a registration drive in Selma, but the registrar’s office in the county courthouse was only open two days per month, the clerks were obstructive, and those few blacks who applied to vote were rejected on technicalities and faced retaliation from segregationists. In January 1965, Bevel and Nash began recruiting ward and block captains to canvass Selma neighborhoods, and held youth rallies, nonviolence workshops, and mass church meetings. Then, with leadership from King and other ministers, they daily sent marchers to the county courthouse to be arrested for violating a local judge’s injunction against such gatherings. The injunction specifically named SCLC and SNCC, and was enforced by a cruel sheriff and his deputies armed with electric cattle prods. In the first week, one hundred schoolteachers marched—a remarkable and inspiring event because black professionals generally chose job security over movement participation, and black teachers, as employees of white school boards, were particularly vulnerable to retaliatory dismissals. In the second week of marches, daily participation exceeded five hundred, and at the end of the fourth week, the sheriff collapsed and was hospitalized—sadism can be exhausting. Meanwhile, the Johnson administration had announced interest in federal legislation to ensure voting rights, and a US district judge in Mobile had overturned the ban on assembly in Selma, suspended the Alabama literacy test for voters, and ordered the Selma registrar to speed up the application process.[20]

Six weeks into the campaign, the registrar was still not enrolling black voters, but Alabama segregationists, including the governor, knew they had to stop the daily marches. For decades, whites had intimidated black voters and then claimed blacks didn’t want to vote, but now Selma blacks were voting with their feet and drawing federal support. The Selma police chief, a decent man in an indecent situation, was following the Albany model of outlasting rather than crushing protests. He released prisoners to avoid overcrowding jails, and was able to rein in the sheriff and white vigilantes within city limits, but he had no authority in surrounding areas where blacks were also mobilizing. In nearby Marion, hundreds of students had marched to the courthouse, and were being held in horrible conditions in jail cells and prison farms. On the night of February 18, four hundred Marion blacks started to walk from a church to a nearby jail where SCLC youth organizer James Orange was confined. Under cover of darkness, a white mob—local police, deputies from surrounding counties, Alabama state troopers, civilians—attacked with clubs and drove the demonstrators back into the church. A young voting rights activist named Jimmy Lee Jackson tried to pull his bloodied grandfather and mother to safety, and was shot by a trooper.

Never let violence stop the movement: Jackson’s death, eight days later, moved Bevel to call for an SCLC march to Montgomery. On Sunday, March 7, six hundred marchers, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, headed out.[21] They didn’t get far. Ordered by the governor to prevent the march, state troopers attacked with clubs and tear gas, and mounted troopers chased the marchers off the Edmund Pettus Bridge and back into Selma. Fifty marchers, including Lewis, were hospitalized. ABC broke into its broadcast of Judgment at Nuremburg—irony too rich for words—to show footage from the bridge. The Selma mayor later admitted, “The wrath of the nation came down on us.”[22] With national sympathy on his side, King announced he would lead a second attempt, on Tuesday, and the SCLC petitioned a US district judge in Montgomery to enjoin the governor not to interfere. At a rally that night, King said, “We’ve gone too far to turn back now. We must let them know that nothing can stop us—not even death itself.” But King had a problem: At his request, an estimated eight hundred out-of-state supporters were arriving for Tuesday’s march, yet the district judge, with White House encouragement, ordered no marching until he heard the SCLC complaint on Thursday.[23]

King’s dilemma in Selma was years in the making. Historians typically point out that King had never violated a federal injunction, and now the SCLC’s choice was either cancel the Tuesday march and risk making a mockery of King’s unyielding words and losing campaign momentum, or disobey the very judge they had asked to intervene on their behalf and who they fully expected to take their side. But the contradiction ran deeper than that. From the beginning, movement strategy had assumed federal cooperation—NAACP lawyers sued in federal court, SCLC leaders negotiated with the White House—but federal officials had no commitment to nonviolence. National government is, by definition, a system of power relations. Put broadly, federal officials exert exchange power when negotiating deals and spending money, exert persuasive power through rhetoric and propaganda, and exert integrative power when the human need for belonging is warped into allegiance to the state. The US government is also highly dependent on threat power, mostly obviously in its hundreds of violent interventions in foreign lands, but also in relations with US citizens: Political radicals will be persecuted! Whistleblowers will be prosecuted!! Pay taxes or else!!! Law enforcement is state threat power. When civil rights organizations requested that federal officials enforce court-ordered desegregation of schools and public transportation, when they demanded the arrest and prosecution of white terrorists, when they insisted on constitutional protections, they were asking armed men—US marshals and soldiers—to intervene on their behalf. Movement leaders wanted to harness federal authority to override southern state authority. Federal troops guarding black students in Little Rock, in 1957, represented the return of armed federal occupiers to a hostile white South eighty years after the Union Army stopped protecting Reconstruction-era freedmen.[24]

As movement activism spread across the Deep South, a grand contradiction emerged: civil rights activists employed nonviolent intervention and patient suffering to gain nationwide sympathy and support and, thus, federal action. In other words, integrative power to gain threat power. (Imagine Gandhi, once the Salt March had won international sympathy, calling for a Chinese military invasion to end British repression of Indians.) SNCC organizer James Forman described the dynamic in Selma: “Our strategy, as usual, was to force the U.S. government to intervene in case there were arrests—and if they did not intervene, that inaction would once again prove the government was not on our side and thus intensify the development of a mass consciousness among blacks.”[25] An unholy alliance—the movement and the feds—but an effective reform strategy; the contradiction only existed if movement leaders claimed total commitment to nonviolence and if their goal was reduction of violence in all its forms. “It is true,” Bob Moses told the 1963 SNCC national conference, “the Negroes are blackmailing the federal government to force other elements in the power structure to accept a compromise.” Then he suggested that this was not enough: “Our job is to change the power structure.”[26]

The varying degree of commitment to nonviolence, of refusal to cooperate with any violence, first became apparent within the movement in 1961, when Lawson’s Nashville satyagrahis, including Nash, Bevel, and Lewis, hurried to Alabama to revive the Freedom Ride. After the first group of riders had been brutally thrashed, Shuttlesworth told Attorney General Kennedy that they needed police protection, i.e., armed intervention. Shuttlesworth’s own nonviolent courage was beyond question, but he must have sensed the fear and fatigue of the battered out-of-towners, who soon abandoned the ride. When a Montgomery church rally for the Nashville reinforcements was surrounded by a white mob, King reluctantly called Kennedy and requested armed federal rescuers. Most in the church were not committed activists. It would have been wrong to sacrifice them to the cause, and, anyhow, many were preparing to fight back violently. King told Kennedy that if federal marshals “don’t get here immediately, we’re going to have a bloody confrontation.” The media images of bloodied freedom riders and the requests from King and Shuttlesworth brought federal action, but the Kennedys’ concern with maintaining order was an impediment to the employment of integrative power. When the Nashville group continued the Freedom Ride into Mississippi, they went with an armed motorcade, which Lawson said they did not want. Guarded by state policemen on the highway, then arrested in the bus terminal—that was Kennedy’s solution—Lawson and company had to do their patient suffering in Parchman Penitentiary, away from the public eye.[27]

This contradiction—an indecisive King trying to prevent casualties by working with the Kennedys, who were primarily concerned with maintaining federal authority, and the Nashville satyagrahis willing to risk suffering rather than shrink back in the face of direct violence—reappeared in Birmingham. King asked Bevel to help him fill the jails, but balked when Bevel recruited children. While King ruminated on the morality of allowing youth participation and pursued telephone negotiations with the president, who sternly warned against using youngsters, Bevel unleashed the Children’s March. In public, King always lauded those taking the greatest risks, but his reliance on federal support to achieve movement goals, and his understanding of his role as movement spokesman, compromised his own commitment to nonviolence—at least before 1967.[28]

King tried to finesse the issue in Selma. On that Tuesday—March 9—he and Ralph Abernathy appeared to be leading 1500 marchers to Montgomery, in violation of the judge’s order. But when they encountered the same barricade of state troopers on Pettus Bridge, King turned the march around. It was scripted theater, negotiated in advance by King, a Justice Department official, and the governor and his state troopers. A few days later, in the judge’s courtroom, King said that he had not intended to complete the Tuesday march, only to demonstrate the marchers’ resolve by confronting the troopers. He later wrote that the short march had made its point by “revealing the continued presence of violence.” In fact, the troopers had stepped aside on the bridge to make King’s prearranged retreat even more embarrassing. The turnaround put the Selma campaign in jeopardy. Participants were disappointed and confused, the integrative power of Jimmy Lee Jackson’s sacrifice, which had inspired the march to the capital, was dissipating, and SNCC members accused King of betrayal.[29] Rather than absorbing more state-sanctioned direct violence and relying on integrative power to draw sympathy and support, King had acquiesced to federal authority, essentially hoping federal threat power would overcome the Alabama governor’s threat power. Meanwhile, the federal judge was in no hurry to render a decision on the proposed march.

King’s caution and the judge’s procrastination aside, the struggle in Selma between the forces of integrative power and the forces of threat power had its own momentum. Jackson’s murder by a state trooper had led to the attempted march to Montgomery, which was broken up by more trooper violence, which had led King to ask prominent clergymen to fly in for the Tuesday march. After that march was aborted, local thugs caught up with three of the visiting ministers. (White bigots had a special hatred for compassionate whites who, by actively challenging Jim Crow, upended the racist cosmology.) One of the ministers, James Reeb, suffered a smashing blow to the head and died two days later, sparking demonstrations of outrage in northern cities and keeping the Johnson administration focused on crafting a voting rights law.[30] Reeb’s death had more integrative power nationwide than Jackson’s because, in general, the white majority, government officials, and newsmen put greater value on a white life—a racist reality that some organizers decried. But if that was the reality, recruiting whites to risk their lives was good strategy (just as Johnson’s rhetoric had transformed Kennedy into a civil rights martyr). The Reeb story—white minister dies to further black freedom—had the John Brown effect of rehumanizing blacks in the eyes of northern whites. Orloff Miller, one of Reeb’s companions that tragic night, later recalled that “people suddenly sat up and took notice and from then on things changed in the movement.”

Selma became a flood of demonstrators….When ministers went to the White House, Johnson rightly said, “Where have you been all these years?” And where had we been? We finally woke up, and it was Jim’s death that woke us up.[31] As Shuttlesworth had predicted during the Freedom Ride, “When white men and black men are beaten up together, the day is coming when they will walk together.”[32]

The national outcry following Reeb’s death suggests that “Turnaround Tuesday” was another missed opportunity. If King and Abernathy had refused to turn back, intentionally violating a federal order not to march, the troopers might have repeated their brutal frenzy on the bridge. The televised beatings of clergymen—white-skinned northerners, including Reeb and Miller, and the dark-skinned but internationally-known King—by Alabama cops at the behest of the state governor likely would have brought even greater national condemnation than did the unseen attack on Reeb by an anonymous hoodlum. The governor would have claimed that his troopers were enforcing the judge’s injunction, thus placing the US attorney general in a bind. His job might require him to support the federal judge and indict King and Abernathy the way he had indicted the Albany Nine, but northern whites would be less interested in legal intricacies and more concerned with the images of police brutality against nonviolent ministers. If the federal government acted against the bloodied marchers, the anonymous white thug would have a familiar name: Uncle Sam. And what if, on Wednesday, as Selma “became a flood of demonstrators,” Nash led one thousand more onto the bridge, defying the federal judge and heading for Montgomery? What if Shuttlesworth led another large group on Thursday? Like in the imagined nonviolent occupation of Washington, the federal government would be revealed as, first and foremost, a violent obstacle to human freedom, and the presidential administration would face the unhappy choice between concession or crackdown.

An interesting what-if, but the reality was quite different, as King’s strategy of playing for federal support succeeded. President Johnson gave the Alabama governor a talking-to, then stood before Congress and network cameras to announce new voting rights legislation. “It’s really all of us,” he drawled, “who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” C.T. Vivian, who watched the speech with King and other SCLC staffers, called it “a victory like none other. It was an affirmation of the movement.” If Johnson’s words were an affirmation of the movement’s achievement in raising awareness regarding the cultural violence of racism, his proposed legislation was an affirmation of federal support for reform to forestall deeper political change.

The next day, though—March 16—brought another opening for radical action. In Montgomery, a small march to the capitol building, led by Forman, came under assault by mounted cops wielding whips and electric prods—a clear indication of how Alabama law officers would have responded to Nash’s proposed occupation. That night, at a church meeting, Forman angrily formulated an almost perfect metaphor for the necessity of structural revolution: “If we can’t sit at the table, let’s knock the fucking legs off.” King, too, spoke heatedly—“The cup of endurance has run over”—stoking the congregation’s anger. Moments later, though, King received an urgent message, and announced that the federal judge had okayed the Selma-to-Montgomery march. On March 21, two full weeks after the initial attempt, thousands crossed the bridge and headed for the capital, marching with federal approval and the armed protection of US soldiers, federal marshals, and federalized Alabama National Guardsmen. Instead of challenging and undermining federal threat power, the march affirmed it.[33]


[1] The organizers called it “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” A. Philip Randolph, who first began organizing such a “march” back in 1942, was planning a labor rally in Washington for October 1963. He joined his labor action to the civil rights action, but, in the end, the “jobs” message was overshadowed. William Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (Norton, 2013).

[2] Unable to prove that picketers had conspired to target a grocery store in retaliation for the storeowner’s jury service, the Justice Department turned to indicting the “Albany Nine” for perjury. The investigation was politically motivated from beginning to end. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (Simon & Schuster, 1988), 866-869.

[3] Branch, Parting the Waters, 808, 823-824, 866-868. Kennedy’s calculated support of the movement brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s oft quoted line from Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason:/to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

[4] Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (Simon & Schuster, 1999), 102.

[5] Jones, The March on Washington, 166-168; John Lewis, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (Simon & Schuster, 1998), 203-204.

[6] In 1932, some forty thousand protestors—World War I veterans and their supporters—set up a well-organized tent city in Washington and demanded payment of bonuses promised to them. After several months, the US attorney general ordered police to drive out the veterans. When the police met resistance, President Hoover turned to the US Army. Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered cavalry and infantry assaults on the encampment. The soldiers destroyed the tent city and injured dozens of its residents. Seemingly a failure, the occupation may have inspired progressive New Deal legislation for poverty relief. A second “Bonus March,” the following year, encountered the more tolerant Roosevelt administration, and, in 1936, a Democratic Congress passed legislation to pay the bonuses. In 1963, the US military positioned thousands of soldiers in nearby suburbs for what they knew was a one-day rally on the Mall. One can only imagine the level of military deployment that would have preceded an announced nonviolent occupation of Washington by an army of civil rights activists.

[7] Jones, The March on Washington, 36-39.

[8] Branch, Parting the Waters, 839-840. The problem all along had been white violence against blacks and, far less frequently, black violence in response to police assaults on black protestors. But, with deeply held racist assumptions, whites couldn’t help but think blacks were somehow responsible for violent police actions. Indeed, in preparing for the appearance in Washington of thousands of “dangerous” blacks, federal officials banned the sale of alcohol, stationed thousands of troops nearby, put the hospitals on alert, and were prepared to shut off the public address system. Branch, Pillar of Fire, 131-132.

[9] David Dellinger, From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter (Pantheon, 1993), 266-267.

[10] See, for example, Louis DeCaro Jr., “Fire from the Midst of You”: A Religious Life of John Brown (New York University Press, 2002), 39.

[11] Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope (Yale University Press, 1989), 236-238.

[12] In the short history of the United States before 1963, most large-scale marches were of the destructive sort, either armed forces marching to war, like Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” or Native communities forced to trudge into exile: “Trail of Tears,” the Navajo “Long Walk,” and other acts of ethnic cleansing. In 1894, Coxey’s Army, led by businessman Joseph Coxey, introduced the idea of marching to Washington in support of federal policy changes. This was a real march, beginning with one hundred unemployed men in Ohio, and ending with five hundred arriving in the capital to demand the government create public works jobs. In 1913, leaders of the women’s suffrage movement organized a large parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, knowing that the national media would be in town for a presidential inauguration the following day. Women came from around the country, an estimated five to eight thousand joined the parade, and two hundred were injured by male attackers. In January 1932, twenty-five thousand unemployed laborers marched in Cox’s Army, led by Fr. James Cox, from Pennsylvania to Washington, to demonstrate for job creation. A few months later came the occupation by the Bonus Expeditionary Force, which the media called the “Bonus March.” The American Indian Movement’s “Trail of Broken Treaties,” in 1972, was also a march to Washington. But the most powerful protest march in the 20th-century United States might have been the 340-mile trek from Delano to Sacramento, California, by Mexican American farm workers in 1966. The peregrinación, as they called it, began with dozens of participants, ended with thousands, and drew attention to their campaign for union recognition.

[13] Branch, Parting the Waters, 876-881; Jones, The March on Washington, 178-188.

[14] Jones, The March on Washington, 217-233. Quote on 218.

[15] Three or four thousand paraded out of Selma, then returned by car and train that night. Some three hundred “designated marchers” continued the middle trek along a narrow two-lane highway, camping at night on black-owned farms. Various celebrities and organizers came and went. On the fifth day, thousands poured into Montgomery. Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster, 2006), 131, 140-170.

[16] Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 344-345.

[17] Carson, et al., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, 224.

[18] In 1961, after the Freedom Ride, James Lawson had called for creation of a nonviolent army. In 1963, when SNCC members prepared a speech for John Lewis to deliver on the Mall, they included lines that evoked images of an army: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently.” More moderate organizers pressured Lewis into omitting those lines. Branch, Parting the Waters, 869-870, 873-874, 879-880; Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 214-224. Gandhi and Khaffar Khan also understood the need for a shanti sena.

[19] Branch, Pillar of Fire, 139-141, 145; Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 230-231. A copy of Nash’s typescript made it to White House officials, giving them a vision of a march they wouldn’t be able to control. According to Branch, Asst. Attorney General for Civil Rights Burke Marshall referred to Nash’s plan as “revolutionary.” Apparently, he understood the implications of mass, nonviolent intervention against state authority.

[20] Branch, Pillar of Fire, 391, 553-591.

[21] Branch, Pillar of Fire, 592-600; Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 307-331.

[22] Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (Viking Penguin, 1987), 273.

[23] Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1992 (Hill & Wang, 1993), 175-177; Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 68-74 .

[24] US troops occupied the postwar South from 1865 to 1877 to protect black rights. In 1877, a compromise allowed Republicans to retain control of the White House in exchange for withdrawing the troops, thus allowing southern Democrats to establish Jim Crow rule. Resolved: The Civil War led to the end of legalized slavery, but it took the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement, a full century later, to decrease white violence against blacks.

[25] Williams, Eyes on the Prize, 255.

[26] Jones, The March on Washington, 219.

[27] Branch, Parting the Waters, 426-430, 459-460, 472.

[28] The Nashville freedom riders were dismayed by King’s refusal to join them on the journey from Montgomery to Jackson. King said he wanted to go, but his advisors discouraged it because he was already on probation and could easily end up serving six months. Still, Nash asked him to get on the bus, knowing that his participation in nonviolent intervention would be a powerful, inspiring example. “Where is your body?” was the refrain the Nashvillians used to encourage each other, but, faced with a reticent King, Lewis had to remind them of Lawson’s dictum not to badger participants beyond their commitment level. Branch, Parting the Waters, 466-468.

[29] Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality, 178-179.

[30] Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 75-85.

[31] Williams, Eyes on the Prize, 274-277.

[32] Branch, Parting the Waters, 423.

[33] Williams, Eyes on the Prize, 278-279; Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 109-123.


Timothy Braatz is a novelist, playwright, and professor of history and peace studies at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. His publications include Surviving Conquest: A History of the Yavapai Peoples; From Ghetto to Death Camp: A Memoir of Privilege and Luck; Grisham’s Juror; and Peace Lessons (forthcoming).

Excerpted from Peace Lessons, by Timothy Braatz


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Jan 2015.

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