Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quote of the Week #1

Note: Quote of the Week is something new for us cosmic hoboes. I will post a new one every week unless others post one before me. And please feel free to post a new quote any time, to explain or not explain the quote, to use pictures or not. My hope is that these quotes will help us to focus or refocus on the ideas that inspire, anger, and challenge us.

That said, check this out:

Conditions [in Mississippi] were so desperate that even NAACP leader Medgar Evers seriously considered the idea of guerrilla warfare in the state. Both Medgar and his brother Charles were deeply impressed with Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1952. "Talk about nonviolent," Ruby Hurley said of the young Med- gar, "he was anything but non-violent: anything but! And he always wanted to go at it in Mau Mau fashion." In her memoir, For Us, the Living, Medgar's wife Myrlie recalls that "Medgar himself flirted intellectually with the idea of fighting back in the Mississippi Delta. For a time he envisioned a secret black army of Delta Negroes who fought by night to meet oppression and brutality with violence." Evers went well beyond mere fantasies of a Mississippi Mau Mau; he and his brother Charles actually began to stockpile ammunition for a guerrilla war. Their father eventually discovered their plans and quickly put an end to the nascent rebellion. [citation omitted] Now Charlie Sims and the Deacons were preparing to resurrect Medgar's dream of a secret black army in the heart of Klan country.

from The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Hill (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 181-182.

The quote above, along with the book of which it is a part, is interesting to me for a number of reasons. One reason is that it undermines the thesis that what we call the civil rights movement was built fundamentally on nonviolent protest. This is not important solely for academic purposes. It is important because the civil rights movement is the template that many modern movements follow and that most left so-called allies of black freedom struggle urge blacks to follow. The quote disrupts the spiritual glow that surrounds the philosophy of nonviolence as practiced by black leaders. "Nonviolence," says the author, Lance Hill, on page 8, "was ultimately a coalition-based legislative strategy cloaked as religion."

Indeed, most civil rights historiography imagines black civil rights leaders as upright but humble people who "won" by moral suasion, leaders who even dared to urge the biblical proportions of suffering heaped upon their flocks of black people, confident that black people could handle it. Consider Martin Luther King's 1958 statement: "Bomb our homes and threaten our children; send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities and drag us out on some wayside road, beating us half dead, and we will still love you. But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer."

The above quote is one of many moments in this book that challenges us to reevaluate the lessons we take from our past heroes. No less a figure than Medgar Evers, often taken as one of the poster boys and martyrs of the nonviolent civil rights movement, knew better than the things that those teaching history--and those using the civil rights movement as a model-- will tell us about him. It is as if the leaders after whom we model our movements led only through force of rhetoric, coalition-based organizing with liberal whites, "faith," and "love." In other words, the dominant historiography would have us believe that by seeming to issue a demand in a way that was nonthreatening to white people, blacks not only won but won the most important civil rights that ushered them into full citizenship. The historiography will tell you that it was violent youth of the mid- to late-1960s, typified by the Black Panther Party, who ruined the color-blind, nonviolent movement for African Americans to gain full citizenship. Convenient as the dominant historical narrative is for those who are dominating, Hill's little-known history points out that something different was going on beneath the surface image of nonviolence.

The national civil rights organizations had to either distance themselves from or turn a blind eye toward local affiliates who responded in kind to daily violence from civil (KKK) and political (police) society. Moreover, when the leaders of the national organizations needed protection, they sometimes relied on elements within their networks of affiliation who were not bound by nonviolence. "During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one visitor to Martin Luther King's home was alarmed to find an 'arsenal' of weapons and discovered that King himself had requested gun permits for his bodyguards. Yet publicly King adamantly opposed any open, organized armed self-defense activity."

The final reason I will share for choosing this quote is that it helps to clarify why violence is not the opposite of the philosophy of nonviolence. The willingness to be violent when needed is the opposite of a philosophic and otiose binding of one's fate (and the fates of one's loved ones) to a single tactic (or, indeed, a religious article of faith) called nonviolence.

Have a good week!

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