“He never threw a brick. He never lit a match.”
— Rep. James Clyburn on John Lewis
Let me begin with these words from Martin Luther King’s acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He told the audience in Oslo that the use of violence “destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.”
In 1965, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, King required that, before any protest march, those involved had to “undergo self-purification.” They would also have to take Gandhi’s vows: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, March 7, 1965, peaceful protesters, led by the late John Lewis, attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Pettus was a Confederate army officer, senator, and grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan.
The 600 marchers, well dressed and walking silently for the cause of voting rights, were stopped at the bridge by local police and Alabama state troopers. Well trained in spiritual “self-purification” as a Baptist minister, Lewis proposed that they all kneel and pray. Before the word got back to the others, the troopers ran roughshod over them. In the ensuing melee, 90 marchers were injured, some seriously, including Lewis who suffered a fractured skull.
Just days before this “Bloody Sunday,” Martin Luther King was in personal dialogue with then President Lyndon Johnson. They were discussing the Voting Rights Act that was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965. In stark contrast to our current president, Johnson federalized national guard troops to protect protesters as they continued their march from Selma to Montgomery, arriving on March 25, 1965.
John Lewis remembered the marchers at the Pettus Bridge as “more disciplined, more somber and subdued, almost like a funeral procession.” The previous 1963 March on Washington involved about 250,000 people and there was not a single arrest.
John Lewis was once the chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, but in 1966 he was removed because he was considered too moderate. H. Rap Brown, one of the leaders who followed Lewis, was notorious for the chant “Burn Baby Burn” in support of the 1967 riots.Congressman James Clyburn claims that this turn to violence “destroyed our movement,” but, more accurately, it impeded it. The backlash caused a split in the Democratic Party and racist George Wallace won five southern states and paved the way for Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968.
On July 11, Donavan La Bella, a 26-year-old nonviolent leader of the Portland protests, was shot in the head by an unidentified U.S. marshall. The “nonlethal” bullet sent him to the hospital where he will require facial reconstruction surgery.
On July 18, Navy veteran Christopher David decided to join the Portland protests. Standing peacefully with a Navy sweater and cap, David was attacked by federal agents, who had formed a phalanx and began clubbing and pepper spraying protesters indiscriminately.
One Portland protester describes the events as “organic and noncentralized,” and that, unfortunately, has allowed some to set fires, otherwise destroy property, and, in a few instances, attack police and counter-protesters.
Seth Jones from the Center for Strategic and International Studies has reviewed 14,000 arrests in 140 cities, and he has concluded that “most of the violence was committed by local hooligans, sometimes gangs, sometimes just individuals that are trying to take advantage of an opportunity.” Black Lives Matter protesters routinely report these criminals to the police.
Of the 80 federal charges that have been brought during the protests, no person identified with the amorphous group Antifa was among them. However, three men associated the racist “boogaloo” movement were arrested by federal marshals for a plot to bomb protesters in Las Vegas. On July 25, Richmond police arrested six white supremacists, who, while carrying BLM signs, broke windows and painted hateful graffiti.
Donald Trump is running a “law and order” campaign much like Nixon’s in 1968, but three major polls show that nearly two-thirds support the protests despite the scattered violence. I’m convinced that race baiting will not work this time.
Nick Gier is professor emeritus at the University of Idaho. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.