Civil Rights Movement Reaches Impasse

Archie Eppe is a teaching fellow in Middle Eastern Studies, a graduate student in Social Relations and a tutor in Leverett House.

There is increasing evidence that Negro protests have failed. The slogan by which most protests are known, and which indicates their strategy, is non-violent direct action. Essentially, the strategy calls for active protests against segregation, e.g., sit-ins, picketing, marches, coupled with passive self-defense, such as falling to the ground and covering one's head when attacked. Most importantly, non-violent strategy is based on assumptions about human nature and American behavior.

Generally, non-violent strategy assumes American whites are a peculiar type of Christian, conscious of what Gunnar Myrdal called the American dilemma. Specifically, non-violent strategy assumes that man is evil but that every man is on the verge of conversion. Negroes are led to believe there is redemption in suffering. Demonstrators are told, to quote the Rev. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, that they should "continue to work with the faith that honor in suffering is redemptive ... We must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force." Further, demonstrators assume whites striking defenseless Negroes experience considerable shame and evoke the same in other whites so as to change attitudes about Negroes. Once this happens, it is further assumed, shame will be therapeutic and develop awareness of the American dilemma, resulting in realization of Negro civil rights.


White Opposition

One does not have to attack these assumptions on philosophical grounds to document failure to achieve these ends through Negro protests. The issue is whether the strategy has worked. In large measure, the segment of the white population assumed sympathetic to Negro rights, white liberals, as represented by the New York Times, have opposed all major protests, especially those in the North, e.g. the March on Washington and school boycotts. Further, referenda which would guarantee Negro constitutional rights have been defeated or narrowly passed, e.g. Cambridge, Maryland, and Kansas City, Kansas. In addition, public officials have received more votes when they actively opposed Negro demands, e.g. Hicks in Boston and Wallace in Wisconsin. Moreover, white organizations specifically opposed to Negro rights, in addition to those in the South, have been organized in the North, Middle-west, and West, e.g. Parent's and Taxpayer's Association, New York (15,000 demonstrated against plans to integrate New York public schools), Homeowner's Groups, Detroit, Michigan, (obtained 44,000 signatures against an open-occupancy law), the California Real Estate Association (against housing law.) In addition, conservatives have increased accusations against alleged Communists in civil rights organizations, e.g. J. Edgar Hoover's remarks about the New York City stall-in. Finally, there would seem to be a direct relationship between the rise in the number of Negroes killed and the amount of Negro property destroyed and accelerated Negro demands. The net result is a growing white counter-revolution which is able to use legitimate organized force and preventive laws to deter and intimidate Negro demonstrators. Thus, non-violent strategy has not worked because the assumptions about white reactions were incorrect.


It is no doubt nearer reality, that whites--Christian or otherwise, liberal or conservative--who attack Negro demonstrators or oppose Negro protests are not always rational or near conversion, but men for whom the Negro problem is almost organically bound with many of their fears; men prone to irrationality and hysteria. Many are more like the Anabaptist Christians who carried swords into a town they planned to occupy just as a reminder of what they might do if they were not civilized Christians. Once in the town square, the Holy Ghost spoke to them and they decided they had been tolerant long enough and killed or expelled Catholics and Lutherans. Many liberals, like these Anabaptists, are no longer tolerant of Negro protests.

Devoid of Christian references, even James Baldwin holds similar assumptions about white Americans. Baldwin would reconcile white and Negro as one would estranged lovers. He assumes they are able to love each other. Further, he admonishes whites: acknowledge the truth, what you really believe about Negroes, and thereby be free to love. But one fears Negro and white have been too long estranged. And even so, if truth must first be found someone will continue to ask, "What is the truth (?)" and numerous answers will be given. Apparently, it is not the presence or absence of truth, love, Christianity or the American dilemma which caused oppression of the Negro but institutions and men who are not responsive to or who evade change and whose behavior, like the Anabaptist, is affected by what they believe to be expedient.

Protests Change

At the same time, non-violent strategists have told Negroes the same thing the Rev. Mr. King said at the March on Washington: "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to the slums and ghettoes of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed." King added, "The marvelous militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead to a distrust of all white people..." King's first statement is based on a correct assumption: many Negroes believe somehow the situation will be changed. However, this is an essentially ahistorical solution based on an old testament conception of history which is mostly mythical; and a new testament conception of history, called saving history, which is a history of gods, chosen people, and the saved and, apparently, Negroes are none of these. So, coupled with non-violent strategy and passive self-defense are belief in evolution and providence: all based on unjustified faiths. Actually, Negro protests are no longer Christian non-violent protests. They are essentially humanistic and violent; while Negroes clamor or haltingly seek secular explanations for them.

King's second exhortation that "militancy must not lead to a distrust of white people" has not been heeded. For, the failure of non-violent strategy among whites has bred protracted frustration among Negroes, helped justify Negro militancy and irrational Negro racism which are full of suspicion and hate for whites.

In this regard, James Baldwin is especially perceptive. In the process he is Comforter, Prophet, and the Angel who trumpets in the day of judgment. As Comforter, he counsels the tragic nigger--the no-smiling Uncle Tom transfigured into a saint by wisdom, but still a brooding, sorrowful man-boy with lowered eyes and a silent presence--who, according to Baldwin's humanism, is holy even though defeated. This holiness can only be attained through suffering and endurance. As Prophet, Baldwin warns Negroes that to believe they are niggers is the beginning of their destruction which may not end in Holiness. As the Angel of Judgment, he warns white Americans that if Negroes believe they are niggers they will no longer become holy, as did past generations, but evil; they will not endure but will rage, and the fire will come instead of Negroes' tears.

'Evil Mood'

I too sense an "civil mood" among Negroes. I sensed it for the first time in Washington the week the Civil Rights Bill was being debated in the House of Representatives. A young Negro from California, much too old and with that brooding presence, was leaning against the wall outside the House Chamber. I asked quietly, "Do you think the Civil Rights Bill will be passed?" He screamed at me: "Hell, we don't need a bill, all that stuff is already in the Constitution. You're already free, man. All you have to do is act like it. I'm here to listen to these fools lie about how they're going to help Negroes." Then, somehow, the quiet marble halls, polished floors, the measured speech now being given by a liberal Northern Republican seemed unreal. More real were the memory of demonstrations, picket lines, sweat, nausea too often denied, six dead Negro children, Birmingham, freedom songs; despair when quiet and sophisticated friends were caught up in the storm of revolt and swept into the movement on waves of emotion and hate; the endless search for identity, truth, meaning, love and hate shared with Negroes the summer of 1963. And the history of another and originally pacifist group of Anabaptists, seemed applicable to Negroes.

In 1534 Anababtists selected the town of Muenster in West Phalla as the New Jerusalem. They marched into the market place prepared to be as sheep for the slaughter, but armed with swords just as a reminder of what they might do if they chose. Whereupon a revelation from the Holy Ghost instructed them to choose that which they might. Catholics and Lutherane were expelled... Roland Bainton, 16th Century Reformation, 1952, pp. 105-106

Both white and Negro reactions are similar; whether, like both types of Anabaptists, they believe they are "civilized Christians" or "sheep for the slaughter." Both hear their Holy Ghost and are prone to irrationality and hysteria. Law and order have succumbed in the face of Negro protest; white Americans have beaten and killed, if they have not expelled Negroes. At one time, Negro protest was characterized by prayers and spirituals. Today, one is apt to see Negro demonstrators with clenched fists and to hear curse words. Thus, Negroes conceive and selfishly use "forms of power," such as the stall-in, based on their conception of what is just. A violent impasse has been reached.

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