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'Our Blood'

Brass Tacks

By Michael Lerner

It seems futile to speak against violence this summer. Everyone headed south is opposed to it but convinced nevertheless that Mississippi will be a bloodbath. The fact is that the struggle of black Americans has evoked commitment from young white liberals unparalleled since the cold war began. In the North believers can picket, petition, and learn that to confuse the names of black fellow-workers is the worst disgrace in the civil rights code.

But the battle-lines are in the South, where volunteers have heard from last summer's veterans that life is rough. Volunteers expect frustration and they are prepared for danger. Bullets smashing through rustic SNCC offices, water hoses, cattle prods, beatings and the consciousness of possible death--to say volunteers are "prepared" for this is perhaps too kind. For too many, none of whom admit it, violence is the summer's wage.

Volunteers have heard veterans talk about Mississippi: "We took it last summer, and we will come to work peacefully again. But we may not be able to control the situation. We may be forced to defend ourselves." The violence manifestoes are jumbled in conversation. A list of the "violent alternative" arguments--although never complete--would include reasons like these:


1) The frustration of Negroes at lack of progress from "gradual," peaceful methods, particularly in rigid Mississippi.

2) The anger of rights workers, black and white, who have endured too many horrible beatings without resisting.

3) The "hysterical" fear of the Southern white community when confronted with unprecedented numbers of rights workers, rising black militancy, and talk of "the violent alternative."


4) Despite efforts to avoid incidents, once out-breaks occur fighting will escalate. The civil rights workers will be forced to fight back.

5) It will be necessary to plan protection for rights workers and the evacuation of those who cannot defend themselves.

6) Violence will give the country a terrifying example of the movement's determination. Since gradual methods and civil disobedience are not working in the South, violence may be the only alternative.

7) Violence will separate the wheat from the chaff: the whites who will be alienated are no true friends of the movement anyway. Such whites inevitably will be lost in the long run; rights workers should not be slaughtered to hold these allies temporarily.

8) Within the movement, nonviolence was founded on the assumption that brutality against rights workers would evoke sympathy from the majority. But many incidents are not reported in the press. The few that have been have had no palpable effect. The movement can no longer count on the white community's conscience. Thus total nonviolence, in the face of provocations this summer, will lose its appeal.

This is the case that some peace-loving rights workers make for the escalatory violence they may provoke if they are pushed into defending themselves. Certainly they have a "right" in the American tradition to defense. The right of defense is not argued, but rather the tactical utility of defense. Ideally the people going to Mississippi have one purpose: to assist effectively the struggle of black Americans to attain a human dignity. It is in this light that violence should be considered.

"Militant" rights workers argue both that the majority of Northerners are hypocritical about civil rights and that defensive violence could be a salutary example to the country. If the first statement is true, as it may well be, then the "salutary" violence will repulse these wavering allies, who feel compassion when rights workers are slaughtered but fear when racial clashes begin. These whites will vote for a President who promises peace, even if it means restrictions barring demonstrations.

But in fact the "salutary violence" argument is not widely popular in the civil rights camp, and few argue seriously that violence is a good thing. None of the organizations working in Mississippi approve of self-defense. King, Farmer, and Wilkins would agree--even at the risk of being branded "Uncle Toms,"--that civil war in Mississippi this summer could scare civil rights back five years.

The second half of the violence proposition, advanced more glumly, is that violence in Mississippi seems inevitable. In the limited sense that rights workers and Negro passers-by may be beaten and slaughtered by poor whites and local police, that is certainly true. Such slaughter arouses indignity and compassion for the cause in the North, and as such is tactically advantageous as well as inevitable.

The great divide, however, lies between such slaughter and violence as we have used the term here--the violence of the racial clash. Because the clash evokes confusion rather than compassion, it is the violence rather than the social indignity that popular opinion demands be ended. Tactically such clashes must be avoided no matter how great the pressure to retaliate becomes.

If one looks back to the list of the "violence alternative," it becomes clear that the advocates of defensive violence have been capitalizing on the rhetorical confusion of inevitable and useful violence. Taken by itself, the second section defending the utility of violence is weak, and that is why it is always argued in conjunction with violence's inevitability. In fact the two are separate. Slaughter is sadly inevitable and tactically advantageous. Violence can destroy the civil rights cause.

"If blood must be shed, let it be our blood." Those words were true when Martin Luther King spoke them and remain so now. Committed civil rights advocates are a minority. The success of their struggle ultimately depends on the tolerance of liberal white majority, however wavering and hypocritical it may be.

Some are arguing that this relationship of tolerance should be abandoned because the majority exercises an intolerable veto. While it is true that violence is vetoed, tactics such as civil disobedience are not similarly checked. Civil disobedience can provide powerful leverage if its objective is sharply clear. What workers cannot do is fight back, and allow violence rather than equality to become the issue. Those headed south have been declaiming at the dinner table that: "I asked myself whether my commitment was great enough to go down and fight for civil rights this summer." This is an important question, but not the crucial one. Violence is easy to risk; slaughter--even in its middle stages--is terribly hard to accept. Ask yourself if you are ready not to fight back. Not under any conceivable circumstance. Will you do anything to stop others from fighting back? Can you subdue the instinctive urge to retaliate in the interest of the cause?

Opponents of militant non-violence may claim this plea is academic because Mississippi is destined to bathe in blood this summer. Given the number of people who secretly thrill at the prospect of battle, those opponents are probably, tragically, right.

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