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Violent Acts and a Nonviolent Movement: The Civil Rights Movement and the Manipulation of Violence by Holly McElrea

Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.
-Mahatma Gandhi

Since they won their freedom at the end of the Civil War in 1865, African-Americans had to contend with near-constant acts of aggression in the United States. In the 1950s, however, Civil Rights groups, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), began to stand up for African-American rights as citizens in the United States of America. The supporters of segregation—often Caucasian elitists made up of the business and blue-collar classes—were extremely aggressive towards supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. The leaders of the Movement, however, chose to fight violence with nonviolence. Inspired by Mahatma Ghandi, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led his followers in the SCLC in a campaign of nonviolence, a term which here refers to the willingness to confront violence without pursuing a similar physically-aggressive stance (Lynd 393). Through nonviolent direct action, such as mass marches and sit-ins, the supporters of the Movement persuaded the American government to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ironically, the violent reaction of many Southern Caucasians, born out of desperation to preserve racial segregation, inadvertently played a crucial role in acquiring those rights. Civil Rights supporters—while consistently employing nonviolent tactics against the segregationist aggressors—manipulated segregationist violence to gain the necessary support to pass the Acts and win the rights and freedoms that African-Americans should have been granted long ago.

Although the media and government interaction played roles in the success of the Movement, it was the manipulation of segregationists that truly made the Civil Rights Movement a success. Aldon D. Morris, professor of African-American studies at Northwestern University, argues that nonviolent direct action was an essential part of the Movement, along with the mobilization of the American people. David Garrow, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, however, argues that it was the violence of the segregationists which served as a catalyst for the Movement by gaining national attention through the media and forcing the Federal government to respond by disavowing the white violence and supporting the Movement. Similarly, Sally Bermanzohn, from the department of Political Science at Brooklyn College, argues that violence played a pivotal role in the Movement, claiming that the African-American community understood violence against them to be a powerful political tool and used it to their advantage. Although the tactics of the Movement relied on segregationist violence, it did not participate in violent acts except in self-defense. Movement leaders saw that it was more valuable to turn the violence of their oppressors to their advantage by showing the world how African-Americans were being treated and, as a result, garnered support for the cause.

A complete analysis of the Civil Rights Movement is beyond the scope of anything less than a full-length book; accordingly, this work will focus on the events in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, where segregationist violence and nonviolent tactics played key roles in the Movement. In the 1950s, segregationist violence plagued the South in many counties, but the outbreaks of racial violence that segregationists inflicted upon the demonstrators at Birmingham and Selma are the most well-known incidents. In order to better understand these incidents, a brief history of the events at Birmingham and Selma is necessary.

Between 1956 and 1966, white supremacists committed countless acts of aggression including, but not limited to, flogging and murder in an attempt to stop black integration in white communities (Bermanzohn 31). Since the American Civil War, African-Americans have had to deal with animosity and violence, and for many African-Americans in the South, violence was a part of day-to-day life. Lynching was a common occurrence, and rarely would the members of the lynch mob be punished. Police brutality and poor prison conditions led to many unwarranted deaths, and those who advocated equality were also victimized. Furthermore, the justice system, often made up of all-white juries, was heavily biased (Bermanzohn 34). By looking at the history of violence in the South, it is evident that violence would play a role in the Civil Rights movement, and MLK and his followers used this everyday occurrence to their advantage.

It was important for the Movement to make a stand against segregation where it would count the most: Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. The SCLC chose Birmingham due to its vast population of white segregationists as well as its history of violence (Garrow 225). The Public Safety Commissioner in Birmingham, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had a reputation for using extreme violence against African-Americans for the slightest offense (Garrow 227). Although the SCLC feared the amount of force that would be used against them, they persevered and sought to use that violence to their advantage without resorting to violence themselves. The SCLC determined that an economic boycott targeted against the downtown business area, as well as mass marches and sit-ins, would be enough to induce the business elites to act in favor of the Movement. Furthermore, the SCLC utilized Connor’s ire to show others how African-Americans were being treated through media coverage. The goal was to use nonviolent direct action tactics to desegregate the town of Birmingham and, hopefully, the rest of the country (Garrow 237).

Demonstrations in Birmingham began on April 3, 1963. After five days of protest, violence broke out against the demonstrators (Garrow 236). Policemen, using clubs and dogs, attacked a crowd of SCLC members who were preparing to march throughout Birmingham (Garrow 239). The segregationists saw mass marches as an act of aggression and used extreme violence to deter the marchers. National and local news reporters broadcast the attack on the demonstrators, which helped to broaden awareness for the Movement (Garrow 239). Connor ensured that every available space to detain prisoners was used, and his response to subsequent marches came in the form of further violence. Local news networks televised images of the demonstrations, including highly controversial footage of law-men attacking school children (Garrow 250). The media distributed the images across America, inciting strong reactions among the populace and aiding the Movement in its struggle against oppression.

In response to the demonstrations, and the resulting violence in Birmingham, a small group of the business elite, an SCLC member, and various politicians met to discuss the demands of the SCLC (Garrow 255-56). On the night of May 9, the group of officials finalized the Birmingham Truce Agreement, guaranteeing desegregation in restrooms and at lunch-counters in addition to the release of the demonstrators being detained (Garrow 259). The violence that took place in Birmingham was inevitable; white segregationists set the precedent years before the Movement began. The objective of the Movement was not to fight fire with fire, but to turn segregationist violence to their advantage by utilizing media coverage to raise sympathy and bolster support for the Movement, while at the same time undermining support for the segregationists. In Birmingham, Alabama, the success of the Movement was strengthened by the severity of Connor’s violence towards African-Americans.

Racial violence in Selma was just as common as it was in Birmingham. The conflict in Selma, however, started out more calmly than those in Birmingham due to the unusual restraint of Public Safety Director Wilson Baker and Dallas County Sheriff James G. Clark, Jr. (Garrow 379). The Selma Movement, focusing primarily on voting rights, commenced on January 2, 1965 (Garrow 359). Except for an incident on February 10, when Clark and his posse chased 165 demonstrators in a sort of “forced march,” segregationist violence did not erupt until Sunday, March 7 when nightsticks, tear gas, and even horses were used in the assault against the demonstrators (Garrow 388). News of the event that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” spread rapidly across the nation (Garrow 398-399). On March 9, the Movement prepared to march to Montgomery but, under the threat of more violence, MLK decided to turn the protestors around once they reached the bridge, upsetting many Movement leaders in the process (Garrow 402-403). It is important to note that although the utilization of violence during the campaign was beneficial in some regards, MLK did not want his followers to be hurt unnecessarily; after the events of Bloody Sunday, further violence seemed imminent and may have caused more harm than good. Although Ghandi stated that “rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom”(qtd. in Lynd 392), he did not mean that he wanted to spill blood; rather, he meant that if blood must be spilled, it must be his own and that of his comrades. MLK followed a similar philosophy: a people must strive for their own freedom and though blood may be spilled in the process, it must be their blood and nobody else’s, not even that of their enemies. The point was not to inflict violence but to make segregationist violence a disadvantage for white supremacists rather than an advantage.

Though the Movement’s members had many altercations with white segregationists, the campaigns of Birmingham and Selma played a substantial role in unifying the nation in support of desegregation (Garrow 418). MLK was inspired by Ghandi’s campaign of nonviolence in India and modified it to suit the needs of the African-American people. Through a crusade of nonviolence, victory was achieved.

In his native land of India, Gandhi practiced satyagraha,which attempts to re-educate antagonists through love, sympathy, patience, and self-suffering (Hare and Blumberg 4). In Young India,Gandhi described a crucial aspect of satyagraha: “Nonviolence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire” (qtd. in Hare and Blumberg 317). Gandhi also practiced what is known as ahimsa: the principle to do no harm to another soul (Hare and Blumberg 315). Gandhi explained that ahimsa “is not merely a negative state of harmlessness, but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer” (qtd. in Hare and Blumberg 315).

Shaped by Gandhi, MLK’s view of nonviolence was a form of resistance by love rather than hate (Lynd 388). Nonviolence uses the mind and emotions to convince the opposition that what they are doing is wrong; the goal is to win affection through understanding (Lynd 381). Not only did MLK and the other members of the Movement want the segregationists to understand their plight, they also wanted the world to see the injustices done to them and to get the message out that violence against fellow human beings is wrong. MLK explained that suffering, willingly accepted by the nonviolent resister, is a highly educational tool for everyone involved (Lynd 392). MLK thought that “suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason” (qtd. in Lynd 392). Furthermore, nonviolence is a decision to accept suffering without retribution. MLK stressed the benefits of a nonviolent campaign while recognizing that many people in the Movement would suffer; however, he knew that what he was doing was right (Lynd 392). Another passage captures his passion for the Movement:

Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right (King).

Although it may seem callous, MLK realized that people would have to endure pain whether a nonviolent campaign was used or not, and he decided to stand up, not only for what was right, but to help others to see what was so obviously wrong. MLK was adamant that victory could only be achieved through nonviolent means.

Aldon D. Morris described nonviolent direct action as an act which resisted the power structure in order to cause an interruption in society without resorting to violence. Although “direct action” may conjure images of violence or aggression, the members of the Movement set out to use peaceful tactics. Some examples of nonviolent direct action include sit-ins, boycotts, freedom rides, mass marches, and legal challenges (Morris, “Retrospective” 525). Mass marches, for example, often included children and the elderly, which may have amplified sympathy for the Movement as a result of the segregationist violence inflicted upon the marchers. Morris argued that nonviolent direct action was an essential part of the Movement: it was able to disrupt the economic and social order while simultaneously calling attention to the Movement’s main message (“Retrospective” 525).

The use of nonviolent direct action tactics had a significant effect on the events in Birmingham and Selma. The SCLC, among similar organizations, saw that it was time to make a stand against oppression. Although different organizations chose different methods, the SCLC manipulated violence in Alabama in order to gain liberties for the African-American people by garnering sympathy from the nation. The economic boycotts and sit-ins at lunch counters gained the attention of the business elite since many businesses relied on African-American patronage. Furthermore, the mass marches in Birmingham and Selma gained the nation’s attention due to the severity of the violence wrought by the segregationists. Political scientist Joseph E. Luders argues that Selma and Birmingham were specifically chosen because segregationist violence was certain, and thus political impact was all but assured (113). The dramatic and violent confrontations in Birmingham and Selma generated the most media coverage and thus were the most useful campaigns throughout the Movement (Luders 125). The goal was to get the message of equal rights to the people, and in Selma and Birmingham they succeeded. This caused the Johnson administration to take quick action by holding a press conference to condemn the violence witnessed on Bloody Sunday (Luders 119). Luders contends that the manipulation of violence was necessary to gain national attention while maintaining other tactics, such as economic boycotts, to engage the local business elite (110-11). Sally Avery Bermanzohn maintains that MLK was a political strategist who understood the way that terror and violence were used by the segregationists, and his use of nonviolent direct action was a political strategy (32).

In 1965, author and professor Martin Oppenheimer noted that the use of nonviolence may only be effective in societies which are willing to refrain from excessive violence (128), which was certainly not the case for the American South. Oppenheimer was skeptical of employing nonviolent tactics in the South, due to the psychological framework of the racially-charged society. He theorized that the leadership of the Movement would be overwhelmed by the traditional culture of violence in the Southern states (129-30). Oppenheimer, however, did not count on the strength of the Movement’s ability to hold itself together through nonviolent direct action, nor did he anticipate the sympathy that the Movement would engender among the rest of the country.

MLK was a strong leader who had the support of countless American citizens. His oratory and leadership skills kept the Movement together and led supporters on the path to change. He explained that: “the purpose of . . . direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. . . . [W]e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with” (qtd. in Garrow 246-47). The Movement used nonviolent direct action and utilized the constant acts of racial aggression inflicted upon them by segregationists to bring awareness of these and other injustices to both political leaders and the public. The mass marches, in particular, put racial violence on display for the rest of the country to see. The members of the Civil Rights Movement knew and understood that white segregationists would not allow African-Americans to claim the rights and freedoms they desired without violence, so MLK and other leaders created situations where that violence would be seen and heard. Furthermore, by boycotting stores that depended on African-American customers, the Movement’s members could sway white business elites. The Jim Crow laws ensured that tension remained between African-Americans and white segregationists, and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement could count on white segregationists to be violent.

Wayne Santoro, in “The Civil Rights Movement and the Right to Vote: Black Protest, Segregationist Violence and the Audience,” explores the successful use of violence and its substantial role in the Civil Rights Movement. According to Santoro, the acts of violence against the protestors created a situation that attracted the attention and, ultimately, participation of the public in the Movement. The usefulness of violence in the Civil Rights Movement depended on the attention, sympathy, and involvement of the American people: only with this trifecta could the Civil Rights Movement gain the support of the nation and its leaders (Santoro 1395-97). Santoro makes a valid argument: without support from the masses, the Movement could not have gone as far as it did. The utilization of violence engendered the support that the Movement needed to bring awareness to the populace and make the necessary changes for universal civil rights.

Some scholars have attributed the success of the Movement to such elements as federal interaction and the media, but the role that violence plays in a nonviolent movement is often glossed over or ignored altogether. People may not want to associate the idea of violence with the Civil Rights Movement, which could be a reason for its exclusion in discussions. The manipulation of violence, however, was vital to its success.

The careers of two presidents, John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), depended heavily on the outcome of the Civil Rights Movement. The pressure from the masses of civil rights supporters ultimately led to the involvement of the federal government. Although JFK tried to remain neutral during the Movement, he needed to maintain good relations with the SCLC and similar organizations lest more demonstrations evoke segregationist violence and create tension between his presidency and the supporters of the Movement. If JFK did not take action, he may have lost the support of the voters who were sympathetic to the Movement (Dallek Unfinished Life 598). Supported by Robert Kennedy, the Civil Rights Act needed to be legislated to remove the majority of segregationist violence and continue to keep the hope for the full integration of African-Americans into American society alive (Dallek Unfinished Life 600-05).

Like JFK, LBJ did not respond to the violence directed at the members of the Movement until such violence gained national attention. LBJ explicitly stated his disapproval of segregationist violence and his belief that the right to vote should be universal in a speech on March 15, 1965 after the turmoil of Bloody Sunday. LBJ captured the motives of the Movement: the protestors risked their lives, awakened the conscience of America, and had faith that American democracy would aid their cause (Dallek Lyndon B. Johnson206). LBJ stated that he “deplor[ed] the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote” (Dallek Lyndon B. Johnson 203). LBJ used the word “dramatize” which shows how he really felt about the actions of the Civil Rights Movement: it was emotionally traumatic, but perhaps also slightly melodramatic, like a performance being put on for the public. Even at the time, LBJ recognized how the Movement was manipulating the situation to suit its needs. Like JFK before him, LBJ felt the pressure to submit to public demands, and on August 6, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (Dallek Lyndon B. Johnson 204-206). The Movement relied on segregationist violence to show America how they were being treated; violence caught the attention of the nation and helped to ensure that the government took action.

Professor of African-American studies Aldon D. Morris insists that the Movement should be given the majority of the credit for the Civil Rights victory and not government intervention or media coverage (“Birmingham Confrontation Reconsidered” 624). Morris, however, does not discount the help that the government provided. The Movement generated enough pressure through mobilization to force the Kennedy administration to concede and support it (“Birmingham Confrontation Reconsidered” 624). Without the support of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 would not have passed through Congress as rapidly as they did; however, this support would not have come were it not for the pressure from the masses that struggled for civil freedom and the populace who witnessed their plight (Morris “Retrospective” 526). Government intervention would have been nonexistent if the majority of American voters did not sympathize with the Movement; to remain in power a leader must act in accordance with the majority of the voters.

When one looks at the events of the Civil Rights Movement in minute detail, as David Garrow does, one can see the importance of political and mobilization tactics. The most prominent tactic, however, was the utilization of segregationist violence through the exploitation of the media. The media transmitted images of white violence across the country which put pressure on the federal government to see that the goals of the Movement were met. The media, however, would have nothing out of the ordinary to report if the members of the Movement had not used nonviolent direct action tactics and utilized segregationist violence to gain national attention and federal support. Images of segregationist violence which were broadcast in the media, along with the growing public support for the movement, put pressure on the federal government and the southern segregationists. Moreover, the SCLC relied on volatile figures in Birmingham and Selma, like Connor and Clark, to continue their violent tendencies. Connor was known for his short temper, and the SCLC wanted to use that against him (Garrow 229). When Clark did not react in the same manner at the beginning of the Selma campaign, many of the SCLC leaders wanted to move to a different location (Garrow 379). Although the SCLC remained in Selma, it is clear that they were counting on segregationist violence to raise support from the nation.

The scholarly discussion regarding violence in the Civil Rights Movement has been thorough and varied. The scholars referred to above have valid arguments that decisively demonstrate their understanding of the topic. Overall, I would argue that David Garrow and Aldon D. Morris make the strongest and most articulate arguments regarding the actions and motivations of the Civil Rights Movement. Garrow’s sometimes minute-by-minute account of the choices made by the SCLC makes it very clear that media coverage, Northern support, and government involvement were all necessary to fulfill the goals of the Movement. Without segregationist violence, however, the media would not have had anything to report, and the American people would not have been moved by the images that they saw. Without the popular support of the American people, the federal government likely would not have supported a bill in Congress. Morris concludes that nonviolent tactics were necessary for the success of the Movement, but his final conclusion—that government involvement was unnecessary—is unconvincing.

Nonviolent direct action may not have become popular without the persistence of MLK. MLK was a strong and articulate leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He was both cunning and courageous. Even though leaders of the Movement were often targeted by segregationists, MLK did not let that stop him. His application of Ghandi’s principles of ahimsa—of doing no harm to anotherand satyagraha—re-educating antagonists through love—to the African-American plight was methodical, calculated, and inspiring. Although the idea of putting oneself and others in danger may seem heartless and callous, he understood that though it may not be safe, politic, or popular, it was still the right thing to do. MLK and his followers had to contend with violence throughout their developing years and, for some, their entire lives. Violence was a part of African-American life, especially in the South, and broadcasting segregationist violence to the world was a practical method of ending it permanently. Many people may not realize the importance of violence and the extent to which the Movement utilized it. Does that, however, change the way we view the Civil Rights Movement? No, it just makes us more aware of what challenges the members of the Movement had to face head-on. They knew the dangers and accepted the possible repercussions so that a change could be made. The Movement’s members took a stand in the face of adversity and possible death to show the world that the treatment of African-Americans in the United States was inhumane. They took a stand for freedom and they won.

Segregationist violence against African-Americans was vitally important to propel the issue of civil rights across America. News coverage in newspapers and on television brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness, causing the populace to react in outrage against the segregationist South. Economic disruptions motivated business elites in the North and South to put pressure on the federal government to take action. Although mobilization tactics such as sit-ins, boycotts, the disregard of court orders, and mass-arrests did much to build social drama, it was the violence wrought by the white segregationists against African-Americans that engendered sympathy in the American people. Violence plays a commanding role in a nonviolent movement: it makes people stop and think about how they, and others, view the world around them. The violence inflicted upon the civil rights demonstrators by the segregationists was the lynchpin to putting pressure on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to support the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in Congress. The SCLC and the many other organizations of a similar nature established a precedent for justice, and through nonviolent direct action, a victory was achieved. The Civil Rights Movement paved the way for future generations of activists and took the first steps in creating a brighter tomorrow.

Works Cited

Bermanzohn, Sally Avery. “Violence, Nonviolence, and the Civil Rights Movement.” New Political Science 22.1 (2000): 31-48. Taylor & Francis. Web. 11 February 2014.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003. Print.

—. Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Perennial Classics, 2004. Print.

Hare, A. Paul, and Herbert H. Blumberg, eds. Nonviolent Direct Action: American Cases: Social-Psychological Analyses. Washington: Corpus Books, 1968. Print.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “A Proper Sense of Priorities.” Washington, D.C. 6 February 1968. Speech. African-American Involvement in the Vietnam War. Web. 21 January 2011.

Luders, Joseph E. “Civil Rights Success and the Politics of Racial Violence.” Polity 37.1 (2005): 108-29. JSTOR. Web. 24 February 2011.

Lynd, Staughton, ed. Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1966. Print.

Morris, Aldon D. “A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks.” Annual Review of Sociology 25 (1999): 517-39. JSTOR. Web. 15 January 2011.

—. “Birmingham Confrontation Reconsidered: An Analysis of the Dynamics and Tactics of Mobilization.” American Sociological Review 58.5 (1993): 621-36. JSTOR. Web. 13 January 2011.

Oppenheimer, Martin. “Towards a Sociological Understanding of Nonviolence.” Sociological Inquiry 35 (1965): 123-31. Wiley Online Library Backfile Complete. Web. 16 January 2011.

Santoro, Wayne A. “The Civil Rights Movement and the Right to Vote: Black Protest, Segregationist Violence and the Audience.” Social Forces 85.4 (2008): 1391-1414. Oxford Journals. Web. 11 February 2014.

Holly McElrea wrote this essay for a course on Intellectual and Social History of the United States during her undergraduate career at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. She recently graduated with an Honours degree in History and will begin working on a Master’s degree in Archival Studies in September. She hopes to focus on the interrelation between archives and social memory.

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