Commentary Magazine


The Children of Birmingham

In the almost excessive reporting and other coverage of the recent events in the South, there has been amazingly little mention of the momentous success of non-violence as a political means. How and why is it working? One reason for the silence, no doubt, is that reporters and their readers tend to look for, and wait for, “dramatic” violent incidents—the police dogs got much more notice than the fortitude of the children. Perhaps another reason is that successful non-violence does not fit easily with American political thinking; maybe people don’t want to mention it. The fact remains that a major social change is occurring, with repercussions in the power structure and the economy, yet with not many wounded and less than half a dozen killed (counting in a murder or two that “has no connection”). We are witnessing a novelty in democratic history. Especially in pacifists it awakens the hope that the example may have consequences in America and in the world far beyond the field of race relations itself.

In discussions of non-violence—except when they are narrowly moral or religious—much is said, usually discouragingly, about the peculiar group characters and the peculiar circumstances that are necessary. It is always pointed out that just the Indians succeeded with just the British, but nobody could have succeeded with the Germans (not that anybody tried). Certainly success does depend on the character of the opponent and on the nature of one’s own commitment. What can we now gather, from the Southern reports, about our peculiar American situation? I am drawing the following reflections from the observations of Dave Dellinger of Liberation magazine during a recent stay in Birmingham.

(1) Very important is that in a situation of powerless frustration, non-violent action at least gives something to do that is simple and guiltless. In a highly organized economic and social structure, where political action is indirect, and legal remedy is necessarily elaborate and slow, people suffer from a creeping paralysis. But now one can strike, boycott, picket, protest en masse, pray and sing en masse, sit in, go limp, be hauled off to jail. None of this requires much money; propaganda is mainly by word of mouth and live meetings; the skills are easily taught—though they require courage and conviction; and organization has proved to be surprisingly uncomplicated and flexible. The general American feeling is, “In such a vast system, what can one man do without connections, money, political party?” Here, demonstrably, many can have an effect, with rather rudimentary organization. People revive with activity, and one action leads to another.

(2) A striking feature of the Southern protest—as contrasted, for example, with the Gandhian movement—is that the Negroes and their white friends do not regard themselves as flouting the Law; rather, the laws are “unjust.” In the sit-downs in terminals, disobeying the police is not regarded as Civil Disobedience or “conscientious objection,” but rather as affirming one’s rights. Partly, of course, this is because the federal law is different from the state law (and has more troops behind it); but it is also because at a certain point of foolishness and unfairness, law as such loses its moral authority. (This was evident after the Dred Scott decision or during Prohibition.) When the disobedient feel that they are “right,” the problems of disobedience cease to be internal and become physical and technical: how not to be swept away by the hoses, how not to drown or get your head broken. This is, of course, a kind of anarchy. In my opinion it is salutary in our extraordinarily supine police-ridden society.

(3) There has been good solidarity. An incident occurs—e.g., police persecution—and at once a small crowd gathers and threatens quickly to become a big crowd. Naturally, any concerted action involving deep need and the danger (and embarrassment) of public exposure creates the sense of solidarity and tends to grow by feeding on itself. In the South—as with labor action in the 30′s but unlike pacifist protest so far—this process of accretion has continued, perhaps because the provocations are omnipresent and obvious. There is no need for imagination or persuasion. Also, the very fact of being in a ghetto, which is demoralizing and ordinarily leads to self-contempt and mutual contempt, becomes the ground of loyalty and rallying when there is a ray of hope. The organized leadership has had the usual bickering, based on jealousies and real differences of opinion, but the solidarity of the people has been unbroken and has forced the leaders to cooperate.

(4) There has been an interesting dialectic between the local actions and the national and regional organizations. Repeatedly the segregationists charge that all the trouble is caused by outside agitators, but the charge doesn’t stick, and new national organizations keep springing up that are even more radical than the ones already in existence. When Dr. King says, typically, “Our local affiliate in Birmingham invited us to be on call to engage in a non-violent direct action program if such were deemed necessary” (“Letter to Eight Alabama Clergymen”), his statement is entirely convincing. It is convincing because everywhere, at a grassroots level, all the Negroes and a great majority of the whites believe that it is high time for such a direct action—at least in Alabama!—so there is nothing surprising if the Negroes of Birmingham think so. Here is a curious inversion of the usual relation of “masses” and “leadership.” The ideology of the protests, the story of the injustice protested, does not have to be taught; it has been endemic in every community for generations; there are millions of orators. Except for the Black Muslims—who are opposed to the integration movement anyway—leadership has added nothing to the ideology of the movement. What leadership—like the students around James Farmer who became CORE—has done, however, has been to give examples of direct action and these have grown gradually into the tactics of a general guerrilla war. The tactics have been taught. But tactics are precisely what one would expect to come “from below”—as, for example, the CIO ideology of vertical unionism came from above—yet brilliant tactics like staying-in and playing basketball rather than leaving the plant were probably spontaneous and local. As Dave Dellinger points out, very few Negroes have ever heard of Gandhi, yet Montgomery and Birmingham were directly Gandhian nevertheless.

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So far I have been talking largely about sociological matters. Let me turn to ethical and spiritual matters, which have been, in my opinion, even more essential for the success of non-violent protest.

(5) First of all, non-violence is succeeding—is remaining non-violent—because by and large the segregationists themselves know that they are in the wrong, whatever they may animally or psychotically feel. The Declaration of Independence, Christianity, Ethics, the Court, all declare against them. They cannot help but recognize that the protesters have a human claim. This makes it impossible simply to mow the protesters down. Paranoiac individuals or an inflamed mob might become violent, but such violence does not carry over. Indeed, the most that the segregationists seem to be saying at present is, “Yes, but not now—not by compulsion.” Also a big proportion of the Southern whites—I have heard it estimated at 35 per cent—is against segregation. And it is evident that the great majority of the youth in the colleges are either integrationist or have no strong feelings—they are interested in getting their degrees and going on to prestige graduate schools without undue embarrassment. In any case, there have been unmistakable signs of ambivalence, divided self, among the white authorities. Mighty threats of reprisal have come to nothing; orders have been given and not executed; respectable churches have begun to remember their universalism.

Underlying this change of heart, of course, are changed objective conditions: the growth of overwhelmingly national communications and economy, national military conscription, national labor unions following Northern industry South, and national politicians relying heavily on Northern urban votes. Not least, the world-wide breakdown of colonialism has made segregation embarrassing in the cold war.

(6) Again, as in India, religion has been a powerful help to the Southern Negroes, enabling them to transcend self and fear, and to meet with fortitude the risks of unresisting martyrdom. The Negro meetings, as described, are often revivalist and (spiritually) intoxicating. On the march and standing, praying and hymn-singing are things to do. The Christian rhetoric of the leaders seems to be somewhat authentic. Among these simpler rural or recently rural folk, Christianity seems to retain some of its essence, its millenarianism, its Kingdom Come.

(7) Finally, there have been the unique factors of family and children which have gone little noticed. The warm, close-knit community of Southern Negro families, dedicated to the children and imbued with religion, becomes a good source of strength and endurance for a difficult non-violent war, once Uncle Tom has been transcended. (The fragmented and more chaotic families of New York and Chicago promise much more hostility and spite.) Those who have criticized the exposure of the children in Birmingham quite miss the point. In my opinion, the entire movement is for the children—and all the evidence is that the children took part enthusiastically. Let us notice that in Northern cities and suburbs also, mass non-violent action has been directed mostly at the issue of the elementary schools. There have been a few mass protests for fair labor practice, but protesting will not produce jobs for the uneducated; it is the thought that the schools are inferior that causes passion. (To give an analogy, the only pacifist protest with mass appeal has been against poisoning the milk with fallout from the testing.) In Dr. King’s usual sermon, surely the telling passage is: “When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, etc.” And the seminal Supreme Court decision was, of course, to give the kids a better break by integrating the schools.

Probably it is only by an idea of the future that one can maintain the vigor and discipline necessary for revolutionary non-violence, or indeed for revolution of any kind. People get used to long-standing present oppression; if it worsens, they lash out in anger and vengeance, and they riot. But the future requires idealism and persistence. In India, Swaraj—Self-Rule—was the future; it was hope. In America, at present, for whites and Negroes both, only the children seem to represent the future. This is what our affluent society has come to, for rich and poor. Among the whites, there is fantastic concern over primary schooling, child psychology, young marriage, suburban environment, as if adult life were not serious. (Ironically, the suburban flight—for the sake of the white children—segregates the Northern schools and now creates problems for the white parents because of the Negro children.) Among the Negroes, the need to secure equal opportunity for the children has suddenly become desperate because with automation and the collapse of share-cropping they are threatened with an even worse future.

Success in non-violence means, fundamentally, not victory or defeat for either side, but that the opposing groups come to share a new future of common mankind. This was certainly Gandhi’s conception. Astoundingly, in affluent America—with its one-third still ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed, even though the GNP is now 600 billion per year—the future of mankind seems to be represented by giving opportunity to the children of poor Negroes. They alone seem to be human! Nothing else arouses deep feeling, can fire the pen of intellectual writers, can bring people out on the streets and make the powers-that-be take notice, and even President Kennedy press for some sensible domestic legislation with a modicum of vigor. The liberal press seems to have no other serious social problem to cover.

Looked at frankly, this is a pathetic—and disastrous—situation. Unless we, Negroes and whites, show an equal seriousness for the future about more grown-up and universal problems, there is not going to be any future for these children to inherit. God bless them, they will get an equal education, but it will be a bad one; they will grow up and vote, but it will be for Bobby Kennedy; they will have jobs (or equal unemployment) manning an expanding economy and galloping technology that we cannot cope with as it is; and they will drive cars in cities already choking to death with cars. They will drift like everybody else—in a world whose functional community is kept from developing by an archaic power structure—right into nuclear annihilation.

The hope is that this Gandhian movement of the children of Birmingham, who certainly never heard of Gandhi, will teach them and some other people to take similar democratic action toward other things that make life livable.

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