'Our Blood'

Brass Tacks

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.