“At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”
BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR
Witnessing Nonviolence as an Ideological Strategy for Political Mobilisation
The Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 was an unforgettable, historic event in the history of the United States that strengthened the nation’s progress toward full democracy and racial justice. It ensured African Americans voting rights and brought to an end the long practice of racial segregation. Moreover, it also signified the use of nonviolence as an ideological and political strategy in its most effective and successful manner to articulate a distinctive voice of protest and for mass political mobilisation against injustice.
Taking Selma-to-Montgomery March 1965 as a classic example in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent protest appealed to the conscience of whites and the state of their oppressive actions and compelled them to bring an end to racial segregation, this paper argues that nonviolence is an effective tool to achieve socio-political justice. Here, political justice of African Americans in the US in the form of Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave African Americans the right to vote and ended racial segregation. This historical event clearly showed that nonviolence is an effective ideological tool in fulfilling mass aspirations notwithstanding massive oppression.
This paper firstly discusses the context and nature of the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965, how it started and escalated finally culminating in the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama. This will also include why Selma became the centre of protest demonstrations and marches. In the second section, a critical analysis is carried out looking into how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. successfully used nonviolence as an ideological and political strategy to articulate a distinctive voice of protest. The influences on Dr. King that led him to embrace nonviolent resistance will also be discussed here. In the concluding part, this paper argues that the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 exemplifies a highly successful use of nonviolence as an ideological and political strategy for political mobilization against injustice.
Context and Nature
Racial segregation in the southern states of the United States was still continuing even after the formal abolition of slavery after the Union’s success in the Civil War of 1865. The most vivid example for this was the series of Jim Crow laws that mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities including public schools, public transportation etc. for African Americans. It is obvious then that the African Americans in Alabama started fighting for basic civil and human rights as soon as slavery ended in 1865 and their protest for equality began long before the civil rights movement emerged.
However, the protest by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s are considered significantly unique.
“During these years, black protest involved more people, was more highly organized, and lasted longer than any other period of activism. It also featured the most direct challenges to segregation and produced the most dramatic gains.”
In fact, it was Rosa Park’s single act of civil disobedience that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott giving impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. The yearlong nonviolent protest by the African Americans succeeded in ending segregated transportation in November 1956. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most effective boycott mobilizers. The Montgomery Bus Boycott signified one of the most defining events of civil rights movement and its success inspired African Americans to demand for their right to equality and an end to racial segregation. In many parts of the United States including Alabama, many students started conducting sit-in protests and freedom rides.
Among these developments one that brought a groundbreaking change in the lives of millions of African Americans was the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965.
While slow progress was being made in many parts of Alabama, segregation and disenfranchisement endured in Selma. Selma was the county seat of Dallas County in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt region. Beginning mid 1964, a series of non-violent direct action protests, demonstrations and marches were organized in Selma demanding right to vote and an end to discriminatory practices in voting registration. These campaigns and protests were violently defeated by the Dallas County Sheriff James Clark and his forces.
The voter registration campaign in Selma was led by Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), the principal African American civilian rights organization in Selma. In November 1964, the leadership of the DCVL invited King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to Selma to lead the protest against discriminatory practices in voting registration.
Dr. King accepted to lead the demonstration in Selma. Selma provided everything that made a media event: a segregationist mayor, a Klan-affiliated police chief, and a very low percentage of African Americans registered to vote. Though the African Americans comprised more than half the population of Selma, only about one percent of adult African Americans were registered as voters. The excessively difficult literacy tests and other discriminatory practices by the Dallas County Board of Voting Registrars made it almost impossible for the African Americans to register as voters thereby denying their legal right to vote. They were also kept off the road and out of the voting booths by systematic intimidation and threat of violence. Naturally, the demonstrations and marches were quite regular and strong in Selma. The civil rights movement was already active there.
In January 1965, in an effort to draw attention to the denial of African American voting rights locally and throughout southern states of the United States, Dr. King’s the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched a joint protest and conducted demonstrations. Their main agenda was to secure voting rights for African Americans in Dallas County and win support for federal voting rights legislation.
The marches and demonstrations escalated tensions in Selma and mass arrests followed. In January 22, 1965, the Federal District court issued non-discriminatory procedures in the voting registration process that the Board of Voting Registrars was required to follow. This move made the tension relatively subsided in Selma.
Meanwhile, demonstrations in Marion, Perry County, were carried out demanding voting rights. In February 1965, a peaceful night demonstration was organized in which the demonstrators were violently attacked by police led by Sheriff Clark. During the violent attack, Jimmy Lee Jackson, an African American labourer was shot and he later succumbed to the gunshot injuries.
Infuriated by Jackson’s death, leaders of SCLC and SNCC called on the African American residents of Black Belt counties to march on the state capital Montgomery, where the legislature was in special session, to demand state-wide reforms in the voting registration process. This was followed by attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery and finally succeeding to march to Montgomery. The success of the march would later give African Americans the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and bring to an end to racial segregation in the United States.
Following Jackson’s death, and SCLC and SNCC’s call, tensions in Selma were quickly reignited. Governor George Wallace soon issued orders prohibiting any kind of march and demonstration.
On March 7, 1965, about six hundred African Americans, led by SNCC’s John Lewis and SCLC’s Hosea Williams, started a march from Selma toward Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama.
When the marches reached Edmund Pettus Bridge, the state troopers asked them to turn back. When they refused, the state and local lawmen launched an unprovoked attack of shocking violence on the peaceful voting rights demonstrators. In the attack, dozens injured and 17 people were hospitalised. The 7th March came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” after the incident.
That evening, the television networks broadcast footage of the violent and brutal attack on the peaceful African American demonstrators. It brought the violence and brutality of Jim Crow laws into the living rooms of millions of Americans, raising what Dr. King called ‘white consciousness.’
Dr. King called on sympathetic Americans and civil and human rights supporters to join him in Selma to renew the march. Thousands of Americans including many religious leaders came to Selma to take part in the march. More than half of the marchers were white Americans.
On March 9, 1965, Dr. King led about 2500 people for a peaceful symbolic march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, since there was restraining order from the Federal District Court preventing the marchers from making a full march and because of his inner conviction, Dr. King told the marchers to turn around.
That night, Rev. James Reeb, one of the many whites who came to participate in the march was brutally attacked and murdered by four white men. This tragedy produced just the right amount and the right kind of publicity to push the Selma campaign to a level of critical influence. On March 15, in a televised address to a joint session of Congress President Lyndon Johnson gave his famous speech, The American Promise, and called Selma “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.” He even compared Selma with the greatest of events in American history. He later unveiled his Voting Rights Bill to legislators and the nation.
On March 17, 1965, Federal District Court Judge Frank M. Johnson granted an order authorising the demand for the march from Selma to Montgomery.
On March 21, 1965, after three weeks of legal battles, the Selma-to-Montgomery March finally resumed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led about 3, 200 people out of Selma for Montgomery under the protection of federal troops. They walked about twelve miles a day and slept in fields at night. By the time the marchers reached Montgomery on March 25, they were 25, 000 strong. Dr. King addressed the marchers from the front of the capitol assuring them that the elimination of white supremacy was near. This was clearly manifested in his speech:
“Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?……. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Five months after the March, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with Dr. King at his side.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of legislation, which, ninety-five years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, made the practice of the right to vote available to all Americans, irrespective of race. The Act also did away with the much controversial literacy tests as a requirement for voter registration process in obstinate areas including Selma. The Act is considered to be the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the United States.
The passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also marked the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement, forever changing politics in the United States of America. The Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 preceded by other significant marches and events was the final and most powerful march that compelled the state to enact this historical Act, to counter the violent racist acts against the African-Americans and to accept them as equal citizens in the country.
Selma: An example of Using Nonviolence as an Ideological Strategy for Political Mobilisation
The success of Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 provides a moving example of what ordinary people can do. The enabling and the empowering device for the people, however, was the practice of non-violence. The civil rights movement gathered strong momentum under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and he rightly guided the masses successfully with his nonviolent strategy.
Nonviolence is an effective and strong weapon for mass political mobilization, to give ordinary people a means to articulate a distinct voice of protest, and to achieve socio-political justice in oppressive circumstances. The success of the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 and many other historical events have proved that nonviolence can be used as an effective ideological and political strategy for mobilization against injustice. The success of the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 exemplifies that despite being defeated in the earlier attempts, in a horrifying environment, when the demonstrators kept faith in nonviolence and slowly made the state realise its own mistake, the injustices it committed against the community, that grassroots movement could force the state to rectify the injustice by enacting a historic and landmark Act.
As Bidyut Chakrabarty clearly points out,
“nonviolence is both an ideological construct and a context-driven strategy for mobilization against injustice.”
He further says that nonviolence is
“a construct with specific ideological tenor underlining the importance of faith in bringing people together.”
“a strategy that appeared to have galvanized masses into action irrespective of the adverse consequences.”
To quote Chakrabarty again,
“nonviolence may trigger a successful socio-political movement in circumstances where violence may not be an appropriate device, given the relatively higher coercive power of the opponent.”
He cites the civil rights movement in the United States in the face of strong racial violence as one of the examples.
In fact, violence was central to politics during the civil rights movement in 1950s and 1960s in the United States, particularly in the southern states. Between 1956 and 1966, white supremacists committed more than 1000 documented violent incidents including “bombing, burning, flogging, abduction, castration, and murder.” There were incidents of intimidation, terror, lynching and riots. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself was threatened with his life and his home was being bombed.
Here, we must see Dr. King as a master politician who deeply understood the use of terror by Southern supremacists, and who, after seeing their superior position, developed nonviolent resistance as a practical strategy.
As it is pointed out,
“King deplored violence for moral reasons but also because the power structure of the South meant that when violent conflicts occurred, blacks inevitably lost. King knew that gaining the moral upper hand was a practical necessity to gain white liberals’ support of the black movement.”
Therefore, when he was searching for an alternative to violence as a strategy, especially when the legal battle could not bear fruit, to fight for equal rights, he found it in nonviolence.
King knew that he was leading a campaign of a historically underprivileged minority against an economically and politically powerful majority.
Embracing nonviolence as an ideological and political strategy however was not only because of political gains. It had to do with his association with Christianity and exposure to many thinkers, writers and activists including Mahatma Gandhi in whose teachings and practices he would later find the practical efficacy of nonviolent resistance.
The influences on Dr. King that led to his faith in nonviolence are well summarised by Bidyut Chakrabarty in his book, Non-violence: Challenges and Prospects.
According to him, Dr. King was
“drawn to nonviolence through his deeply held Christian beliefs, fortified by the influences of Gandhi, Ruskin and other African American writers.”
He further says that
“while Christ’s Sermon on the Mount with its emphasis on humility, self-criticism, forgiveness, and the renunciation of material gain drew King to non-violence, Thoreau’s commitment to civil disobedience had taught him the rightfulness of protest against an unlawful state, and Gandhi confirmed the effectiveness of mass non-violent resistance to the state. So, the teachings of Jesus, Thoreau and Gandhi constitute a foundational pillar in King’s political ideology. This was a synthesis, manifested in a simple philosophy of love.”
For King, the driving force for nonviolent struggle was unconditional love. He defended his faith in nonviolence by drawing on the Christian ethics of love, care and compassion. The Christian notion of agape meaningfully articulated King’s notion of love. Agape means unconditional love which seeks nothing in return. It is an overwhelming love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative. It is the love of God operating in human heart.
In the Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965, King could garner support from Christian leaders. Many white Americans also took part in the final march. The support he received from the Black Southern Church was also very critical in organizing an effective campaign. On the other hand, “the participants seem to have found in non-violence perhaps the most effective technique to pursue and also fulfil their political ideological goal, which was not so different from what they learnt from religion.” The major reason for whites responding to King’s call for equal rights and against racial segregation was also mainly because of this religious affiliation and emphasis. King often stressed on Christianity and Christian ethics and “justified non-violent resistance to ‘unjust laws of segregation’ because it was contrary to God’s will.”
Inspired by Gandhi’s teachings, King believed that nonviolent protest movements could succeed regardless of context if there is ‘willingness to suffer and sacrifice’. By willingly suffering, the perpetrators of violence will change their heart. This was evident with the success of civil rights movement forcing the state to combat racist violence and bring an end to racial segregation in the United States in 1965.
Dr. King could also develop nonviolent civil disobedience as a practical method to cope with segregationists’ violence. He often emphasised on aggressive nonviolent resistance. By relying on nonviolent methods, he articulated a distinct voice of protest. He could mobilise the masses in a large scale giving them a collective platform and voice. The marches and demonstrations attracted black working people, the maids, the day labourers and even clergymen. King also used the new medium of television in the most effective and productive way. The more violence the blacks endured, the more the press covered the boycott. It raised the consciousness of millions of Americans and garnered their support and sympathy. Terror lost its effectiveness. It took its toll on victims, but it could no longer derail the movement for equality. As it is argued, “King’s nonviolent strategy caught on because it was effective, spurring millions into action and rallying support from around the country and the world. It was the most practical method to deal with racist violence.”
King’s nonviolent movement could also force the US government to guarantee civil rights. President Johnson had to act and acted. The success of the civil rights movement in compelling the state to act against racist violence is considered as one of its greatest achievements.
The Selma-to-Montgomery March of 1965 thus represents a moving example, a historic event that proved that nonviolence can be an effective ideological strategy for political mobilization against injustice.
Despite doubts and ambivalence by his followers on the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a firm belief that nonviolent direct action was the only means to bring an end to racial segregation and achieve equal rights for African Americans. He was proved to be right in his faith in nonviolent resistance to achieve the mass aspiration of African Americans.
Through the use of nonviolence, he was able to appeal to the conscience of white Americans and garner their support for the African Americans’ movement for equal rights. The nonviolent direct action made the state realise of the need to stop the injustices committed against the African Americans.
Dr. King employed nonviolent resistance as an effective means of articulating a distinctive voice of protest. He used nonviolence as an effective ideological tool in fulfilling mass aspirations notwithstanding massive oppression. His effective use of nonviolence ensured that the African Americans in the United States achieve socio-political justice. This was fulfilled after the successful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 culminating in the passing of Voting Rights Act, 1965 ending racial segregation and ensuring African Americans equal rights.
Bermanzohn, Sally Avery. “Violence, Nonviolence, and the Civil Rights Movement.” New Political Science, Vol. 22 No. 1 (2000): 31-48.
Encyclopaedia of Alabama. “Modern Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.” Accessed as on February 26, 2015. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1580.
Encyclopaedia of Alabama. “Montgomery Bus Boycott.” Accessed as on February 22, 2015. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1567.
Encyclopaedia of Alabama. “Selma to Montgomery March.” Accessed February 22, 2015. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1114.
Lyndon Baines Johnson. “The American Promise.” In Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965. Volume I, entry 107, pp. 281-287. Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1966. Accessed as on February 20, 2015. Last updated June 6, 2007.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. “Our God is Marching On!” Accessed as on February 22, 2015. http://mlkkpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/our_god_is_marching_on/.