How nonviolent protest defeats injustice

Martin Luther King and his wife lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital.As I watched the television footage of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square make the decision to reduce the violence going on around them by sitting down in the street when word came that thugs from the Mubarak regime were on the way to break up their rally, I was reminded of how it felt in the spring of 1965 to be part of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march.

What we are witnessing in Egypt should not seem strange to Americans. For it is nothing less than Egypt’s version of the kind of protest that permanently changed our way of life more than 45 years ago.

The Selma march that I was part of began on Sunday, March 21, and had as its final destination Alabama’s capital of Montgomery. The march was designed as a nonviolent protest to dramatize the obstacles — legal and illegal — that blacks faced in Selma and throughout Alabama when they tried to register to vote.

In the racially divided Alabama of those years, the march, which drew a crowd of 25,000 by the time it concluded with a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had formidable opposition. Among its angriest foes was the state’s governor, George Wallace, who had come to the country’s attention during his 1963 inauguration when he declared, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

President Lyndon Johnson took Wallace seriously. Knowing the danger the marchers faced, he federalized 1,800 members of the Alabama National Guard to help keep the peace. In addition, he sent Deputy Attorney General Ramsey Clark to Selma to direct the Justice Department’s effort to maintain law and order. But no civil rights demonstration was ever truly safe in the Deep South of the 1960s.

Shortly after the Selma-to-Montgomery march ended, Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five, was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan as she drove along a deserted stretch of Route 80. She was the third death the Selma protests produced. Before her murder, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black Alabama pulpwood worker, who had made five unsuccessful tries to register to vote, was fatally shot by state troopers after a protest rally, and James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was beaten to death by a white mob.

None of us on the march felt confident about what was going to happen. We were scheduled to walk seven miles on the first day, and everyone knew the Alabama National Guard could not guarantee the safety of 3,000 marchers over that much highway. Early on, I remember passing a large sign with “Coonsville, USA” written on it, and along the march route, there was no escaping the constant shouts of “White Nigger.”

But then, as now, what struck me as special about the Selma March was the calm that existed side by side with the apprehension. It was reassuring to have King at the head of the march and to see the care his aide, future United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young — dressed that morning in bib overalls — took to get everyone in tight rows before we left Selma. But what, I think, ultimately gave the march crowd its calm was the decision people in it had already made to remain nonviolent and accept the consequences of their actions, no matter how vulnerable that made them.

Crowds, so many sociologists tell us, are volatile entities, prone to panic. At Selma the opposite was true.

The next day, along with a dozen volunteers, I helped clear the cow pasture in which those marching all the way to Montgomery were scheduled to spend their second night. As we were going about our work, four pickup trucks, with gun racks on their hoods and Confederate flags taped to their doors, pulled up along the shoulder of the road. Scattered over a pasture several hundred yards long, there was no place to hide.

The men in the pickup trucks immediately began shouting obscenities at us through a bullhorn. Taken by surprise, we stared back at them, wondering what they would do next. Nothing much, it turned out. Their guns, in this case, were just for show. After a few frightening minutes, we all went back to clearing the pasture. The obscenities continued for another half-hour. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the men got back in their pickups and drove off.

In this era before the cell phone, there was no one to call for help, and even had we been able to make calls, nobody could have arrived in time to do us any practical good. We were lucky. We had gotten off easy, but we had also gotten to see, even more vividly than on the day the Selma march began, how liberating it can be to know you have passed beyond the point where worrying about yourself determines what you do.

It is a state of mind that for most of us doesn’t last very long. But when such change happens, as it did at Selma and at so many turning points in the civil rights movement, the sense of personal freedom that follows is immense. Threats don’t matter. A Hosni Mubarak, like a George Wallace, loses the power to intimidate.

Nicolaus Mills is author of “Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964.” He is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College.

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