Tobin Miller Shearer
My sons, Dylan and Zach, are both members of the Democratic Socialists of America. In their mid-twenties, they live in Chicago and carry the cards to prove their DSA membership. I’ve seen them.
Dylan and Zach regularly fill us in on their work for the DSA. They attend rallies, sit on committees, and organize community-building events. We joke sometimes that this is their form of church.
But we also have more serious conversations such as the one that Zach and I had several weeks ago about the antifa movement, the loosely organized coalition of individuals and associations focused on defeating the resurgence of U.S.- based neo-fascism and white supremacy. In my conversation with Zach, I had dismissed the antifa movement as indiscriminately violent and therefore dangerous. Zach pushed back, reminding me that the antifa movement had, quite literally, saved lives during the “Unite the Right” white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-August. Antifa members had used violence to protect a group of clergy and other Christian leaders like the Harvard philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West when they had come under attack. Zach challenged me to not dismiss what I didn’t understand.
I have thought often about his comment and the antifa movement in the weeks since Charlottesville. While I continue to count myself a pacifist due to my religious beliefs and upbringing, I am now at a point where I no longer know if what I once thought to be true still is.
To be fair, it is not just Zach’s prompting that has pushed me to reconsider the relationship of violence and nonviolence.
Every other year or so I teach a course entitled, “The Black Radical Tradition.” In it I introduce my students to Robert F. Williams. An unapologetic defender of armed self-defense during the civil rights movement, Williams found himself publicly denounced by Martin Luther King, Jr., kicked out of the NAACP, and by 1961 forced to flee the country following trumped up kidnapping charges by the FBI. I feature a photo of him and his wife Mabel, each holding a pistol, on the webpage for the African-American Studies Program that I direct at the University of Montana.
I include Williams on that webpage because he personifies a central question arising from the study of the black freedom struggle: what is the appropriate relationship of violence and nonviolence in the struggle to overcome racism—or any form of oppression?
After introducing Williams, I spend a day arguing that he and those influenced by him were not only harmful to the overall goals of the black freedom struggle, but that they were actually far more conservative than they were radical. I attempt to convince my students that violence is “the white man’s way” and is, therefore, an inherently racist and colonialist practice. To further bolster this position, I also aver that violence does violence to the perpetrator, drawing on the thought of non-violence advocate Elias Chacour: “If to overcome the beast, we become the beast, then the beast has won.”1 I conclude with a flurry of evidence showing that nonviolent methods were successful in the South from the 1940s through the 1960s, that violent methods were often highly sexist, and that civil rights leaders like long-time activist Daisy Bates absolutely excoriated Williams for not being true to the nonviolent principles that had proven so successful in the struggle for black freedom.
I then do something different. The next time that the class meets I rebut my previous argument by noting that, in communities like Jonesboro, Louisiana, in the 1960s, armed self-defense groups such as the Deacons for Defense successfully protected nonviolent demonstrations, offering a sign of strength, an indication that they would not be intimidated, that they would not yield. I note that even the most principled and committed of activists, people like NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers—a man who was ultimately assassinated for the nonviolent resistance he promoted—seriously considered the possibility of organizing armed struggle in Mississippi. Evers even studied the tactics used by the Mau Mau rebels who had fought against British colonial rule in the 1950s.2
Students find most convincing the argument made by civil rights historians Charles Cobb and Charles Payne that one of the reasons the KKK and other white activists killed relatively few civil rights field workers was that local families in communities like Greenwood, Mississippi, had armed themselves and forced carloads of white aggressors to retreat under fire. When I add that women also shot back at their attackers and that young people were rarely convinced by the dictates of nonviolence, my students rethink their assumption that the civil rights movement and violence were antithetical.3
In that same course, I also discuss two other civil rights figures with distinctive views on violence and nonviolence: Vincent Harding and Gloria Richardson. By the middle of the 1960s, civil rights activist and Mennonite minister Vincent Harding had witnessed the violent backlash directed at his friend and mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. By 1967, that violence had only intensified. No wonder that Harding then challenged white Mennonites on their acquiescence to and participation in state-sponsored violence. Harding pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized revolutionaries bent on seizing power while taking “advantage regularly (though often unconsciously) of political, economic, and military power.”4 Although in subsequent essays in the 1990s and beyond Harding remained faithful to King’s ethic of nonviolence, Harding recognized and called out the inconsistency of a Mennonite community that preached nonviolence but had relatively little cause to live it out.
The same tension between nonviolence and armed self-defense surfaces when I introduce my students to Gloria Richardson, the activist and organizer who led the early 1960s struggle to defeat segregation and achieve economic justice in Cambridge, Maryland. Through her leadership of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee (CNAC), Richardson passionately defended the right to self-defense in the face of racial terror. Heralded as a proto-Black Power icon, Richardson added, “Self-defense may actually be a deterrent to further violence. Hitherto, the government has moved into conflict situations only when matters approach the level of insurrection.” Although the Cambridge campaign incorporated tactical nonviolence, Richardson and those protesting with her rejected nonviolence as an all-encompassing ethic. As a result, the demonstrations in Cambridge often turned violent and, by June of 1963, Maryland’s governor had sent in the National Guard to quell the rebellion growing there. Intervention by the Kennedy Administration then resulted in the short-lived but ultimately effective “Treaty of Cambridge,” an agreement to end segregation and increase black hiring in city jobs. Richardson maintained that the treaty resulted directly from the violent means used by the CNAC, an analysis she went on to impart to younger activists like Stokely Carmichael.5
But the conversation that Zach and I had in the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville has made the issues I discuss with my students feel far more pressing, urgent, and immediate. The ideas have jumped the fence from academic exercise to real-life proving ground.
Since Charlottesville I have thought of the many times I’ve witnessed members of the Anabaptist community offer smug and satisfied declarations about the superiority of nonviolence, a bumptious attitude seldom grounded in experiences such as those faced by the clergy in Charlottesville. At the same time, I’ve recalled conversations I’ve had with those who have lived out their nonviolent commitment with integrity through involvement with Christian Peacemaker Teams, Witness for Peace, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and other peacebuilding organizations. I’ve been deeply impressed by both those who have witnessed outside the military establishment like Daniel Berrigan, Molly Rush, and the rest of the Plowshares anti-nuclear activists as well as by those who have witnessed inside the same, like Lisa Schirch of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.
And I’ve wondered what this present moment means for my own ongoing commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence.
When Zach challenged me on my easy and ready dismissal of the antifa movement, I had to admit that I for one like a world in which Cornel West is alive. I am very glad he will continue to gift us with virtuosic theological performances. I like that world a whole lot better than one in which Professor West and those others who protested with him are not present. I am grateful for the antifa members who saved their lives in Charlottesville. I am also grateful for those who stood in silent witness prepared to be nonviolent even if they came under attack.
At this moment, my desire is this. I wish that those of us Anabaptists who hope to have something relevant to say—or do—in the context of a resurgent white supremacy will grapple with and respect the tradition of armed self-defense that is today being taken up by some members of the “antifa” movement. I hope that we will not be too quick to dismiss what they may have to teach us about the limits of our own commitment to nonviolence.
Indeed, as a historian of both the black freedom struggle and the Anabaptist community, I hope that we will be able to recognize that violence in the tradition of armed self-defense has sometimes done real, palpable—dare I say it—kingdom building work.
As I write those words, they sound foreign and alien to my Anabaptist ears. Nonetheless, I think the historical record bears out my contention.
Perhaps I should be fearful of what my sisters and brothers in the Anabaptist community may have to say to me about such a heterodox assertion. Yet, at this moment, I care far more about whether the words I pen in this article will have some modicum of relevance to my sons and their comrades in the DSA.
- The author has heard numerous speakers attribute this quote to Chacour, but as of publication has not been able to confirm him as the actual source. The author invites readers to contact him at email@example.com if they can confirm the attribution. ↩
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). ↩
- Ibid., 373; Jr. Charles E. Cobb, This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 148-149. ↩
- Vincent Harding, “The Peace Witness and Revolutionary Movements,” Mennonite Life, October 1967, 164. ↩
- Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2007), 88; Biography.com Editors, “Gloria Richardson,” A&E Television Networks, https://www.biography.com/people/gloria-richardson-21442461 (Accessed September 27, 2017). ↩