Civil Rights & Martin Luther King, Jr.

John Lewis and the Spirit of Selma

by Terry Messman

John Lewis at Nashville sit-in, book cover of March: Book One, courtesy

Editor’s Preface: John Robert Lewis (b. 1940) is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, and the dean of the Georgia congressional delegation. His district also includes the northern three-quarters of Atlanta. His Wikipedia page is a reliable starting point for information about his nonviolent civil rights activities and his political career. JG

It has now been 50 years since “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, when John Lewis and Hosea Williams led some 600 civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. The demonstrators attempted to march peacefully from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights, but state and local police viciously attacked the nonviolent procession, brutally beating them with whips and clubs, firing tear gas and charging the defenseless marchers on horseback. Hundreds of people suffered bloody beatings and some were clubbed nearly to death.

Read the rest of this article »

Aspects of Nonviolence in American Culture

by Mulford Q. Sibley

Edward Hicks, “William Penn’s Peace Treaty with the Indians”; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: Mulford Sibley wrote this article in the early 1960s as his contribution to the scarce anthology Gandhi: His Relevance for our Times, edited by G. Ramachandran and T. K. Mahadevan, New Delhi: Gandhi Peace Foundation, 1962. Please see the Editor’s Note at the end for further information about Sibley, and acknowledgments. JG

American culture, it is sometimes said, has been peculiarly violent, both in outlook and in practice. It has exalted physical force, praised rough action, and placed in the forefront such cynical statements as “Fear God and keep your powder dry.” One of America’s leading Presidents Theodore Roosevelt is well known for his advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” (1) Violence has been associated with the frontier spirit, the Westward movement treatment of the American Indian, the rise of business corporations, and the development of labor organizations. Violent crimes are more numerous proportionately than in most other nations of the world; and the police, by contrast with those in Britain, are heavily armed. Popular culture, moreover, if we are to take radio, television, cinema, and pulp magazines as indicators, exults in violence.

Read the rest of this article »

Guest Editorial: Martin Luther King and the Commitment to Nonviolence

by Vinay Lal

Martin Luther King, at Southern Christian Leadership Conference; courtesy

Whatever the difficulties that Martin Luther King encountered in his relentless struggle to secure equality and justice for black people, and whatever the temptations that were thrown in his way that might have led him to abandon the path that he had chosen to lead his people to the “promised land”, it is remarkable that King’s principled commitment to nonviolence never wavered through the long years of the struggle. “From the very beginning”, he told an audience in 1957, “there was a philosophy undergirding the Montgomery boycott, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance.” His own “pilgrimage to nonviolence” commenced, King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom (1958), with the realization that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Read the rest of this article »

The Birth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference


Editor’s Preface: Following upon the victory of the Montgomery bus boycott (December, 1956), the nonviolence organizer Bayard Rustin had the idea of convening a meeting of black leaders in order to create an organization that would carry on the nonviolent struggle for civil rights. This 1957 SCLC brochure, reproduced here as a pdf file, and our most recent discovery in the War Resisters’ International archive, is a vivid reminder of how central a role Gandhian nonviolence played in the US civil rights movement. Indeed, one of the major contributions of both SCLC, and Martin Luther King, Jr., was to synthesize Gandhian nonviolent civil resistance (satyagraha) with Christian nonviolence, as the quote below extracted from the brochure illustrates. This essential synthesis not only permeates the brochure, but also is the main theme of Martin Luther King’s ground breaking spiritual classic, Stride Toward Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958). JG

Poster courtesy

The basic tenets of Hebraic-Christian tradition coupled with the Gandhian concept of satyagraha,
or truth force, is at the heart of SCLC’s philosophy.
Christian nonviolence actively resists evil in any form
.”  SCLC

On January 10, 1957, more than 100 Southern leaders gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, to share and discuss their mutual problems of the Southern struggle. By unanimous agreement, the body voted to form a permanent organization that would serve as a coordinating agency for local protest centers that were utilizing the technique and philosophy of nonviolence in creative protest. Two months later, close on the heels of the successful Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, SCLC came into being in New Orleans, Louisiana. Martin Luther King, Jr., was elected president.

Read the rest of this article »

Nonviolence in Mississippi

by A. J. Muste

Poster quote courtesy

This article is in the first instance an appeal to those, Negro and white, who are taking part in the movement for civil rights in the United States today in 1964. It is an appeal that in considering how to deal with the agonizing and complicated problems which now beset it the emphasis shall be on nonviolence, i.e. on maintaining the spirit of nonviolence in the movement and in devising apt and imaginative applications of a basically nonviolent strategy.

During the long hot summer of 1964, about which we had been warned or with which we had been threatened, the violence and tension were focused largely on Mississippi where three young men who volunteered to work in the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO)campaign for voter registration and related objectives simply disappeared. It was in Mississippi that Medgar W. Evers, the devoted and highly respected organizer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), was brutally assassinated. No one has been convicted of that crime in the courts of that state. It was in Jackson, Mississippi, that the widow of Medgar Evers at his memorial service said to her fellow Negroes and fellow workers, “We must not hate; we must love”. What I am trying to say in what follows is that this statement must be the light that guides the movement in the dark passages and the motto on its banners as it moves into the light.

Read the rest of this article »

Blues for Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Terry Messman

Martin Luther King, Jr.; courtesy

Two of the most inspiring currents in modern American history came together when Muddy Waters and his electrifying Chicago blues band traveled to Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., on May 18, 1968, to play a benefit concert for the poor people and civil rights activists camped out in a shantytown in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.

Both of the mighty rivers that converged on that fateful day in the nation’s capital — the river of song and the river of justice — had their headwaters in the state of Mississippi, in two of the nation’s most poverty-stricken areas.

The river of song had its source at the ramshackle wooden shack where Muddy Waters lived and labored and first played the blues; while the river of justice had its headwaters in Marks, Mississippi, the small town in Quitman County where Martin Luther King, Jr. first saw the full extent of childhood poverty and hunger.

“Justice is like a Mighty Stream”

The two rivers had joined together in Resurrection City, the encampment created by the Poor People’s Campaign in May 1968. One of Dr. King’s most oft-cited passages from the prophet Amos likens justice to a “mighty stream.” Five years earlier, Dr. King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the massive March on Washington in August 1963 while standing at the same location where Resurrection City now stood. He had quoted Amos in his speech: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Read the rest of this article »

They Refused To Let Justice Be Crucified

by Terry Messman

Dust wrapper courtesy Univ. Press of Kentucky

During their hard-fought struggle to overcome nearly impossible odds and win voting rights for African American citizens who had been disenfranchised for 100 years, civil rights activists marched down the long and treacherous road that led from the brutal battlefield of Selma, Alabama, through a seemingly endless gauntlet of beatings, bombings, bloodshed, gunshots, martyrdom, and a tri-state assassination conspiracy.

Even though their nonviolent efforts to win the right to vote were met with some of the most shocking violence of the civil rights era, the Freedom Movement stood its ground and claimed perhaps its most significant and far-reaching victory for human rights — the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As a young man, Bernard LaFayette was chosen to become the key organizer of this dangerous and bloody struggle, and he offers a fascinating insider’s look into the Selma campaign in interviews and in his recent book, In Peace and Freedom, My Journey in Selma. The lessons in community organizing, in this highly insightful case study, are deeply valuable and relevant to today’s human rights activists.

Find the Cost of Freedom

In opening up this chapter of the Freedom Movement to reveal its lessons, it is important to approach it, not as some academic case study in nonviolence, but with the clear-eyed realization of the terrible price that was paid in bloodshed and the loss of life. LaFayette has given us something far more profound than just another case study of nonviolence. He has also opened our eyes to the heartbreaking sacrifices made by decent and compassionate people such as Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb, who selflessly gave their very lives in their commitment to fighting for the most basic of human rights.

Read the rest of this article »

Remembering Vincent Harding: An Enduring Veteran of Hope

by Ken Butigan

Vincent Harding, c. 2013; photographer unknown.

Historian by profession and relentless nonviolent advocate by calling, Vincent Gordon Harding died on Monday, May 19, at the age of 83. The author of a series of books on the civil rights movement — which he called the Southern Freedom movement — he not only wrote history, but also played an active part in the struggle to make and remake it.

Harding worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Mennonite House in Atlanta, an interracial voluntary service. As part of the Albany, Ga., movement, he was arrested for leading a demonstration at the city hall in 1962. He became a strategist for the movement, and drafted Martin Luther King’s historic 1967 anti-war speech “Beyond Vietnam,” which King delivered at Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day before his assassination.

Read the rest of this article »

Martin Luther King: Nonviolent Insurrection for Economic Justice

by Terry Messman

Martin Luther King, Jr.; with poster for Poor People’s Campaign; photo by Horace Cort; courtesy AP

Sometimes, in the midst of protest marches, a feeling springs up unawares, a feeling that Martin Luther King’s last dream can never die. His visionary dream of a Poor People’s Campaign remains an unsurpassed blueprint for the edifice of human rights we are still waiting to construct, the resurrection of the Dream.

For many years, everyone from well-meaning educators to White House officials has called on Americans to honor the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., by volunteering in community projects such as fixing up schools and community centers, removing graffiti and collecting food. These various proposals for a day of volunteerism to honor the civil rights leader fall tragically short of King’s dream of economic and racial justice, and an end to war. For, in his last days, Martin was on the move to Washington, D.C., not to participate in a feel-good photo-op at some community renovation project, but rather to launch a showdown with the federal government — a government that, even under the leadership of liberal Democratic Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, had refused to remove the burden of poverty from the backs of the poor.

Read the rest of this article »

How to Learn Nonviolent Resistance as
Martin Luther King, Jr. Did

by Mary Elizabeth King

How does one learn nonviolent resistance? The same way that Martin Luther King Jr. did—by study, reading and interrogating seasoned tutors. King would eventually become the person most responsible for advancing and popularizing Gandhi’s ideas in the United States, by persuading black Americans to adapt the strategies used against British imperialism in India to their own struggles. Yet he was not the first to bring this knowledge from the subcontinent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. beside a picture of Gandhi; photograph © Bob Fitch

By the 1930s and 1940s, via ocean voyages and propeller airplanes, a constant flow of prominent black leaders was traveling to India. College presidents, professors, pastors and journalists journeyed to India to meet Gandhi and study how to forge mass struggle with nonviolent means. Returning to the United States, they wrote articles, preached, lectured and passed key documents from hand to hand for study by other black leaders. Historian Sudarshan Kapur has shown that the ideas of Gandhi were moving vigorously from India to the United States at that time, and the African American news media reported on the Indian independence struggle. Leaders in the black community talked about a “black Gandhi” for the United States. One woman called it “raising up a prophet,” which Kapur used as the title of his book.

While a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, King was intrigued by reading Thoreau and Gandhi, yet had not actually studied Gandhi in depth. A friend, J. Pius Barbour, remembered the young seminarian arguing on behalf of Gandhian methods with a reckoning based on arithmetic—that any minority would be outnumbered if it turned to a policy of violence—rather than on principle.

Read the rest of this article »

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi