'Our Blood'

Brass Tacks

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.