BEN McBRIDE: As someone who believes in nonviolence as a tactic, I’m always, even more so, caught in a conflict around the sense of nonviolence as a tactic seems to denote that our white counterparts are going to be moved with empathy by our suffering. And after 40 to 50 years now of the way in which violence has been normalized in this country because of technology and the way in which people are seeing violence and desensitized to it and the way in which now folks are looking at black women and men and brown women and men being rapid fire, being destroyed, shot, brutalized on a rapid basis, every 45 seconds on their phone.
I sometimes find myself in an internal war of how do we stay committed to nonviolence as a tactic to ensure — is it still a tactic that can bring about freedom, safety?
MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY: [interrupting] Okay, go for it. Bring out your little gun and just shoot . . .
McBRIDE: No, no, no, no . . . that’s not what —
BROWN-TRICKEY: This is ridiculous. I do not believe this kind of thing all the time. I keep hearing this.
McBRIDE: That’s how we talk about the different forms of nonviolence.
BROWN-TRICKEY: I know, but I want you to hear that for so many it’s a tactic. But it’s also about me. I became something very special because of nonviolence and I don’t even care what happened to the rest of the people, all I know is what it did for me.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: What you just heard is a discussion between Minnijean Brown-Trickey, the longtime civil rights activist and member of the Little Rock Nine, and Ben McBride, founder of the Empower Initiative. Both believe in and teach the principles of nonviolence, but you can hear the tension between the civil rights veteran and her counterpart in the next generation.
It was a tension that existed at the height of the movement. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence, the Black Panther Party and the black power movements were emerging, pursuing a more confrontational path to equality.
That tension remains as new generations of activists undergo their own examination of the paths to change.
But at the civil rights retreat at Sunnylands in California this January, the veterans were steadfast in their belief — partly because of the experiences they endured that bonded them to the philosophy in the first place.
I’m Jonathan Capehart and this is “Voices of the Movement,” a series from my podcast “Cape Up,” sharing the stories and lessons of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement and using them to figure out where we go from here.
CAPEHART: McBride’s philosophical dilemma and Brown-Trickey’s five decades of certainty demonstrate the tension that has always been there within the movement — then and now.
TAYLOR BRANCH: It was interesting to me that one of the places where people saw discongruity was on nonviolence.
CAPEHART: Taylor Branch, who we heard from in our Letter from a Birmingham Jail episode, is the author of “Parting the Waters” and two others books that comprise his authoritative trilogy on the civil rights movement and America in the King years.
I talked to him at Sunnylands after the group discussion where McBride and Brown-Trickey clashed.
BRANCH: I immediately went out after the discussion and talked to some of the interns here who weren’t in any of these sessions and they’re not even coming here. They just work here. And I said, “You mind if I ask you what does the word nonviolence mean to you? What’s your association with it?” And all of these are like 19-year-olds, they all said it’s the way you should be. It’s a way of making your protest have the possibility of having an effect because, no matter what your cause is, if you’re a violent people will dismiss it and they won’t even hear it. And I was impressed.
I think maybe we might be — even though it’s not in the in the discussion, it’s not part of the movement, you don’t have people like Martin Luther King preaching about nonviolence now. You don’t hear it out of the Black Lives Matter movement or the Parkland movement or the Occupy Wall Street. None of those movements talks about nonviolence the way Dr. King did. I’m not so sure that we are right to presume that younger people aren’t fertile to discuss it if you did hear it because nonviolence is so, so central.
CAPEHART: Using nonviolence as a tool for social change is not something that King introduced to the world. He learned it from the writings of philosopher Henry David Thoreau and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi of India.
They were a great influence on King in late 1955 as he led the year-long Montgomery bus boycott by African Americans in Alabama’s capital city.
The success of that protest catapulted King to the forefront of the nascent civil rights movement, and it is what pushed King to travel to India to learn more.
BRANCH: He went over there to find out about and came back saying the Ghandians are all over the place about nonviolence. Half of them are . . . are fast all the time and the other half don’t want to step on insects, and then there’s [then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru, the epitome of nonviolence and he’s building a nuclear bomb for India, you know, because of Pakistan. So the Indians are all over the place. We have to develop our own nonviolence because we are a minority in this country and the only thing we have going for us is we have a little bit of Christianity. He says essentially, if you studied democracy and we claim to be Democrats, all of democracy is built on a vote, and a vote is nothing but nonviolent. So we’re trying to get people to expand their commitment to decide things by votes. It’s a great thing that we don’t have wars after every election. No matter how unpalatable the candidate, the winners are to one side or another we accept the result of the vote and that’s nonviolence. You know, it’s working. So Dr. King came back and said we need to forge our own.
CAPEHART: In King’s books he refers to these early years in the movement as his “pilgrimage to nonviolence.”
In an earlier interview with “Cape Up,” Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) describes the philosophy King found through that pilgrimage.
JOHN LEWIS: We studied the teaching of Gandhi, the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of Thoreau, and around that time a little comic book came out. It was called, “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.” Dr. King helped edit this little book. It was 16 pages; it sold for 10 cents. It became like our guide. And we became imbued with the philosophy and the discipline for nonviolence.
We had what we called role-playing, or social drama. We had black and white college students, some high school students. We’d meet every Tuesday night in the Fisk University campus in a little Methodist church, and we studied and studied. And then we had what we call “test sit-ins,” where a group of black and white students would go to a little restaurant, or go to a little place where they had a lunch counter, and just sit, to establish the fact that these places that would refuse to serve interracial groups. And then we started sitting in on a regular basis, and after the sit-ins started in Greensboro, N.C., we’d be sitting there in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, waiting to be served, and someone would come up and spit on us, or put a lighted cigarette out in our hair or down our backs. Pour hot water, hot coffee, hot chocolate on us. Pull us off the stool and start beating us, stomping us. And we would try to look straight ahead, without saying a word. And then we were told over and over again if we continued to sit in, we would be arrested, and we would be taken to jail. And I will never, never forget it as long as I live.
One day, when a group of us went down to sit in, students from Fisk University, Tennessee State, Meharry Medical College, American Baptist Seminary, Vanderbilt, Peabody — we’d be sitting there, then were ordered to get up, and we would just stay sitting. And we were placed under arrest. But before being arrested — if I were going to get arrested, I wanted to look good. I wanted to look clean. I wanted to look fresh. I wanted to look sharp. So I went [to] downtown Nashville and bought a new suit. It was a used suit, and I paid $5 for this suit. And the day I got arrested, I did look clean and fresh and sharp. And I felt so free. I felt so liberated. And I have not looked back since.
CAPEHART: You felt so free and so liberated being arrested? Why?
LEWIS: Yes. Because people had said, “We’re going to arrest you. We’re going to take you to jail,” and somehow, in some way, we broke that chain. That it’s okay to get arrested and go to jail for something that is right and fair and just.
CAPEHART: As committed as King and Lewis were to nonviolence, it still wasn’t something that was blindly accepted by those who worked in the movement.
Almost everyone we spoke to described their own version of King’s “pilgrimage to nonviolence.”
BROWN-TRICKEY: The two lessons I think I learned on that first day with all that was I’ll never be a hater for any reason. You can’t . . . I don’t think you can make me hate.
CAPEHART: After Minnijean Brown-Trickey’s tense interaction with Ben McBride, I spoke with her about how she came to be so committed to nonviolence.
She tells her full story in an earlier episode of this series, but she is one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in the Arkansas capital in 1957.
What she learned from that searing experience still guides her today.
BROWN-TRICKEY: That was my training right there. The violence trained me to be nonviolent. And maybe that’s how we have to think about it. We live in a violent society. So what else are we supposed to do. What kind of value can we have if we live in a deeply violent world? There is only one place to be.
What is our touchstone? I mean so a lot of people it's religion. Maybe that does it for some people. But how do you know who you are? What is our touchstone if it's not nonviolence? It just includes everything. It includes relationships with people, relationships with the Earth. It just includes everything. So why not? When you're being hated so brutally you have to have something inside that says whoever you are, that's not me.
So one of the things I talk to young people about, is sometimes you think you’re mad, but you’re not. You’re sad. And how your response to sadness is different from a response to anger. And so to constantly try to hone that response to be thoughtful and thorough and . . . learn stuff so that I don’t just shoot off, right? So those are the kinds of things if I could tell young people what I would like for them to do is a good thorough training in nonviolence because it opens up a lot of possibilities for us.
CAPEHART: Not everyone’s personal pilgrimage led to such certainty.
Diane Nash was a leader of the civil rights movement. A prime architect of some of its most powerful efforts. Among other things, she was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — or SNCC. And according to Taylor Branch, even she struggled with the philosophy of nonviolence.
BRANCH: Even Diane Nash said — who was one of the great expounders and theoreticians of nonviolence; she advanced it in the Freedom Rides; it was her idea to use those children in Birmingham; it was her idea after the church bombing, she presented what became the blueprint for the Selma movement as the epitome of nonviolence — even she abandoned it and said, in the late ‘60s, “If we did all of this by nonviolence think what we could do if I was willing to knock over a few banks and become a guerrilla” and stuff like that. And later she said and will tell you today, “Ten years later I looked up and I hadn’t knocked over any banks and I wasn’t a guerrilla or anything. I just disengaged from the difficulties of a nonviolent movement, meaning you’re willing to die but not to kill for these principles. Behind a lot of noise about being violent and I’m really tough and I’m virile.”
CAPEHART: Even King struggled with the concept of nonviolence.
Branch wrote about how even in the very last days of King’s life, the leader was depressed because he wasn’t sure if the answer to racism could be found in nonviolence.
Nevertheless, King always did his best to teach the philosophy and lead by example — even when people disagreed with him.
BRANCH: You know one of the most amazing interviews I did over all the years I was doing this was with Stokely Carmichael about his arguments with Dr. King on nonviolence.
CAPEHART: Stokely Carmichael was a young activist when he became chairman of SNCC. But, frustrated with the slow pace of progress, Carmichael broke off and began touting black separatism. The mantra “Black Power”? He coined that phrase.
BRANCH: They were . . . during the Meredith March in the summer of ’66. They were marching through Mississippi, it was a long march, and Stokely had proclaimed “black power” on that march and it took off like a firestorm, especially in the media because it had the frisson of violence. So they were marching along discussing . . . Dr. King talking about his reservations and Stokely talking about why is it that America admires nonviolence only in black folks. You know we are the ones who have to be nonviolent. I have been going to jail for six years and now you’re saying I need to be nonviolent and invite more suffering on me to get white people to do what they should have done in the first place. That’s not fair. And Stokely said Dr. King would say, “Of course that’s not fair, Stokely. I know what you’ve been doing. I know what you’ve been going through. All I’m trying to get you to see is that nonviolence is a leadership doctrine. We are ahead of the rest of this country. We’re trying to move it so that it accepts votes and common culture as a way of solving things. That’s leadership. If we accept violence, we’re not catching up with white people, we’re dropping back to white people.” And you know that’s a very profound debate.
CAPEHART: As we heard earlier, it’s a debate still being had today. Yet, most of those who practiced nonviolence in the movement of the 1950s and ’60s remain steadfast in their devotion today.
That’s because they bore witness to it’s short-term and long-term results.
Again in this series, we come to Andrew Young, the chief strategist of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
ANDREW YOUNG: Can I just have one story right quick? When Martin went to jail with Ralph Abernathy in Albany, Ga., I’d never been involved in the movement, I just got there. And I had to go in and see him every day.
So I go in there and there's this big sergeant behind the desk, [who was] white. And I said, “Excuse me sir. I'd like to see Dr. King.”
He didn't even look up. He said "A little nigger out there wants to see them big niggers back there. What do I do?"
I said “Oh, shucks.”
They said, "Send him back." So I went back.
And I told Martin and Ralph, "You know what he said to me?" Martin said, "I don't care what he said, you got to get in here every day and give me a report on what's going on."
Ralph said, "Why don't you jump across the desk and slap him?"
I said, "He's bigger than me and he's got a stick and a gun." It just took that to bring me to my senses when I went back out. I said, wait a minute if I got to come in here every day.
I saw his name, and I said, “Thank you very much, Sergeant Hamilton. I'll see you tomorrow.” And I left. When I came back in the next day, I said, “Sergeant Hamilton, how are you doing today?” And I said, “You must have played football somewhere.” And he sat up and we'd start.
He went to Valdosta State, played tackle. We talked about football for about three minutes and I said, "Can I see Dr. King?"
"Yeah, go on back." See? When I came back out, I mean every day like that for about 10 days.
It didn't take but two minutes. Just calling his name, and we became friends, rather than police and scared Negro.
Long story short, I go to the U.N., and I'm up in Maine speaking and who comes up to see me? But this tall, no longer fat, tall and skinny, got a green jacket with the white pants and white buck shoes. I mean a New England playboy. And he comes up and says "You don't remember me do you?"
I said "Where did we meet?"
He said "Albany jail." I said, "Huh?"
He said, "I'm Sergeant Hamilton."
I said "What are you doing up here?"
He said, "As soon as you left, I realized that I didn't want my children to grow up that way. And I put them all in the back of my station wagon, and I found a job up here as a security guard."
And I said "Well how are your kids doing now?"
He said "They're in some of the finer schools in New England, and I just came here tonight to thank you."
Now, I can probably find, you know, several hundred situations like that. Now, I didn’t come for nonviolence. I just ended up in the middle of this. But I mean I’ve never been in any play, in any situation, where violence would have helped me more than thoughtful nonviolence.
CAPEHART: Coming up on “Voices of the Movement” . . . the final episode: Passing the baton. Where do we go from here?