The violence of nonviolence

“Get up, boy!” the voice hissed in my right ear. I could feel the chair shake as the person stood behind me and tried to forcefully shake me out of my chair.

“He said get up, you filthy ***. This place ain’t fer your kind.” The counter to my right banged sharply in my left ear as the other man slapped his hands down on the counter, trying to disrupt my calm state.

The noise in Woolworth’s cafe was loud, and jostling, and while not everyone in the crowd was coming up to the counter to intentionally harass me, there was a continual throng of noise, of people telling me to leave, of people telling me they knew where my family lived and if I cared about them, I should leave, of people dropping plates on the counter right in front of me, the glass shattering. I kept my eyes closed as long as I could.

I opened them. The red digital clock in front of me read 59 seconds. 

Greensboro Sit-ins 


59 seconds. That’s how long I would have lasted doing a sit-in if I was part of the student non-violent coordinating committee’s de-segregation protests.

I wasn’t actually sitting at a lunch counter protesting segregation. My husband and I were at the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights, walking through the section on the American Civil Rights movement. In the corner of one of the rooms is a lunch counter with four chairs. A museum worker makes sure anyone who wants to try the interactive exhibit is over 13 years old. You sit in one of the seats, place headphones on your head, and place your hands flat on the counter in front of you, just like the protestors did in the 60’s. Although your chair looks like a normal cafe stool, it’s rigged to jostle and shake along with the audio. Before the noise of the counter surrounds you, the voice of a SNCC volunteer tells you it’s going to be scary, but you’re going to be okay, and you should just concentrate on breathing and blocking out all the noise.

59 seconds.

Before the end of the school year in 1960 when the sit-in started, over 1500 college students had been arrested. Sometimes they sat from open until close at those lunch counters before being hauled off to prison. Enduring hours and hours of psychological and physical abuse.

I’ve been thinking about how much white people love Martin Luther King Jr. How we compare his peaceful protests and nonviolent movement with some of the disruptive activities of protestors today and say, “Why can’t everyone just be peaceful and nonviolent? It worked last time!”

But I realized most of the time when I think of MLK and the nonviolent movement, I’m thinking about it backwards. The term nonviolent trips me up. It’s easy for me to think that all this social change happened without violence.

That’s not true. The Civil Rights movement was a very violent time period. It’s just that rather than the violence being directed at the white oppressors, Civil Rights leaders taught their movement followers to voluntarily receive violence from white oppressors in the belief that unearned suffering has redemptive qualities– that it would awaken white consciousness and bring social change.

The Civil Rights movement was not peaceful. MLK didn’t just march to Washington, sing some songs, and new legislation came down from the White House.  People were beaten. People endured horrific abuse. People died.

We went to church in Montgomery, Alabama at Ralph Abernathy’s old church (friend and co-leader of MLK). The preacher came down to hold our hands and sing the benediction with us, as we were the only visitors that day (and only white people… so we kind of stood out). Afterwards, the mostly elderly congregation welcomed us and chatted a bit. One of the members, a grey-haired professor at Concordia, told us to look out for a small memorial on the way from Montgomery to Selma. “That’s where my dear friend’s father was lynched.” She said. “He had a good business and was found riddled with bullet holes for being an uppity black. No one was convicted.”

From NY times

Over 4000 African Americans were lynched in the South between 1877 and 1950 in America.

There was So Much violence.

We drove to Selma. We walked over Edmund Pettus bridge, the path that nonviolent protestors, led by John Lewis, took in their march from Selma to Montgomery, protesting their lack of voting rights. It was on this bridge that these marchers were attacked and beaten by local posses and state police. The video footage of Bloody Sunday did awaken the white consciousness. Hundreds of people, mostly clergy, over 1/3rd white, came down to join the march after that. In the end, LBJ signed the Voting Rights act. The strategy worked.

But there was so much violence leading up to that moment.

John Lewis leads the march over Edmund Pettus Bridge

59 seconds. It was strange, sitting at that lunch counter. It was the first time it really hit me, on an experiential level, how much courage and bravery it takes to endure violence nonviolently. How much courage and bravery it takes to willingly put yourself in a position to suffer violence in the first place. It was strange, as a white person in 2017, hearing all that hatred spewed at me, and realizing it was other white people who were saying all those filthy things.

It’s easy as a white person to think nostalgically about MLK. To think his way was the only viable way to bring social change. But the white tribe in America doesn’t bear scars from years of slave beatings, lynchings, and beatings at the hands of white police. The white tribe doesn’t bear scars of daily abuse because of our race, let alone the psychological scars that come from directly putting ourselves in the line of that abuse in an attempt to bring change.

I’m so thankful for the legacy of MLK, John Lewis, and other nonviolent leaders like them. I believe in their ideals and the dream of a beloved community that has space for white people, too. But it struck me this weekend in a new way that the high cost of America’s redemption from most forms of institutional racism was born by the victims. The cost was born by ordinary black men and women who already were victims of violence and abuse. That, of course, is the way of the cross, the way of forgiveness. But it’s not natural.

And then there’s this other part I was thinking of: when we try to talk about reconciliation, and black people ask white people for some kind of accounting for the past, some kind of restitution, some way of acknowledging the cost and trying to make things right…we white people are baffled.

I think maybe we only find this desire for restitution confusing because we have yet to grasp the depth of the violence black people experienced in this country at the hands of white people.

We’re going to have to get a lot more uncomfortable before the real conversation can even start.

3 thoughts on “The violence of nonviolence

    1. thanks Brooke! The more I read about the work of Equal Justice Initiative, the more impressed I am. I’m glad you got to read Just Mercy. So heartwrenching, but so powerful!


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