robert f. williams makes a strong case for a negaive answer to the question many Negroes are asking these days: Can Negroes afford to be non-violent? The Montgomery bus protest, which was once hailed as a portent of greater victories to come, is fast becoming an icon for pacifist devotions. In Alabama and Mississippi, in North Carolina and Virginia, in Little Rock and Tallahassee, the organized movement for liberation is virtually at a
In such a situation, it would be arrogant for us to criticise a Robert Williams for arming in defence of himself and his neighbours. Gandhi once said that although non-violence is the best method of resistance to evil, it is better for persons who have not yet attained the capacity for non-violence to resist violently than not to resist at all. Since we have failed to reach the level of effective resistance, we can hardly condemn those who have not embraced non-violence. Non-violence without resistance to evil is like a soul without a body. Perhaps it has some meaning in heaven but not in the world we live in. At this point, we should be more concerned with our own failure as pacifists to help spread the kind of action undertaken at Montgomery than with the failure of persons like Williams who, in many cases, are the only ones who stand between an individual Negro and a marauding Klan.
When non-violence works, as it sometimes does against seemingly hopeless odds, it succeeds by disarming its opponents. It does this through intensive application of the insight that our worst enemy is actually a friend in disguise. The non-violent resister identifies so closely with his opponent that he feels his problems as if they were his own, and is therefore unable to hate or hurt him, even in self-defence. This inability to injure an aggressor, even at the risk of one’s own life, is based not on a denial of the self in obedience to some external ethical command but on an extension of the self to include one’s adversary. “Any man’s death diminishes me.”
But it is a perversion of non-violence to identify only with the aggressor and not with his victims. The failure of pacifists with respect to the South has been our failure to identify with “a screaming Mack Parker” or with any of the oppressed and intimidated Negroes. Like the liberals, we have made a “token” identification to the point of feeling indignant at lynching and racist oppression, but we have not identified ourselves with the victims to the point where we feel the hurts as if they were our own. It is difficult to say what we would be doing now if Emmett Till had been our own son or if other members of our family were presently living in the south under the daily humiliations suffered by Negroes. But it is a good bet that we would not be in our present state of lethargy. We would not find it so easy to ask them to be patient and longsuffering and non-violent in the face of our own failure to launch a positive non-violent campaign for protection and liberation. The real question today is not, can Negroes afford to be pacifists, but are pacifists willing to be Negroes?
This question is particularly pointed in the South, and those of us who live in the North should not feel overconfident as to how we would act if we lived there. But the tragic fact is that in the South the bulk of the members of the Society of Friends and of other pacifist groups live down to the rules of segregation much as other people do. Only a few scattered individuals, like Carl and Anne Braden in Louisville, Kentucky, and a few intentional communities, like Koinonia in Americus, Georgia and the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, break significantly with the pattern of segregation. So long as this pattern is maintained, a temporary absence of overt violence only means the appearance of peace when there is no peace. Human beings must love one another, or they will learn to hate one another. Segregation is incompatible with love. Sooner or later, segregation must erupt into violence, and those white persons who conform to the practice of segregation are as surely responsible as those of either colour who bring out the guns.
Robert Williams makes a bad mistake when he implies that the only alternative to violence is the approach of the “cringing, begging Negro ministers,” who appealed to the city for protection and then retired in defeat. The power of the police, as the power of the F.B.I., the courts, and the Federal government, is rooted in violence. The fact that the violence does not always come into bloody play does not alter the fact that the power of the government is not the integrating power of love but the disintegrating power of guns and prisons. Unfortunately, too many of those who hailed the precedent of the Montgomery bus protest have turned away from its example and have been carrying on the fight in the courts or by appeals to legislators and judges.
In Montgomery, it was Rosa Parks, Martin King and their comrades who went to jail, not the segregationalists. The power of the action lay partly in the refusal of the participants to accept defeat when the power of the local government was stacked against them, partly in their refusal to co-operate with the evil practice (riding in segregated buses) and partly in the spirit of dignity and love expressed in the words and actions of King.