Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gold in the ground

What about legitimate self defense?

The U.S. has changed dramatically since the 1950s.
--Kent Shifferd (2011, p. 157)

Historian Kent Shifferd cataloged the astonishing number of justice campaigns conducted from 1955-1965 in the South of the US, all nonviolent, mostly completely victorious, and summed up the gains. Lest anyone forget, the South featured segregation in all things, from lunch counters to hospitals, from public transportation to motels. Any black person who stood up to it in any way could be arrested, fired from a job, beaten, and even lynched. It was a morally repugnant society and system. Those who cannot understand what it was like often dismiss the nonviolence of the Civil Rights movement, but it was by far the least costly and most successful approach. Apply the counterfactuals and think it over.
  • What if African Americans had picked up the gun in violent insurgency?
  • What if radical whites had engaged in violence against federal officials who were too slow to intervene and fix the racism and grossly unfair southern state laws and practices?
  • What if African Americans had simply used violent self-defense, meeting fists with fists, guns with guns, bombs with bombs, only in response to attack?
Think each scenario through. Not only would African Americans have been crushed by the overwhelming violence of the system, not only would white allies have been increasingly persecuted and isolated, the vast majority of the American electorate would have retreated from the real questions and would have increasingly been grateful for the thin blue line that protected them from the violence of blacks. The righteousness of the cause would have been quickly buried and the focus would have been security, with all African Americans regarded with increasing suspicion. There never would have been Supreme Court decisions outlawing school segregation or mass transit segregation. There would never have been a Civil Rights Act of 1964 nor a Voting Rights Act of 1965. Segregation might have eventually, begrudgingly, been mitigated somewhat, but the costs would have been prohibitive.

Far too often the historical record is ignored and the perennial questions are considered in the most shallow and short-term fashions. Nonviolence, said one African American from the South who was a participant in the movement, was like finding gold in the ground. Violence is tossing that gold into the trash. We need to learn to pick up that gold and work with it.


Shifferd, Kent D. (2011). From war to peace: A guide to the next hundred years. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

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