When violence boils over as the inevitable response to systemic racism and injustice, white Americans rush to dust off quotes and images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.
“Look at King and Gandhi!” cries white America. “They were nonviolent and they changed the world!”
There is some truth in that — but only a portion of the truth. The truth of American history — and the history of all unjust empires — is we have only listened to peace after or as an alternative to violence.
King and Gandhi were great men who should be studied and emulated with sincerity. But, to claim they “changed the world” because whites in power simply chose to listen to the reasonable, peaceful voice of justice is insincere and simply untrue.
Unfortunately, white power structures have only ever listened to the voice of oppressed people of color when forced to do so. Violence has always been the fulcrum that has caused white people to listen to the oppressed.
Were Gandhi and MLK violent men? No. But they did strategically and intentionally elicit the systemic violence of their oppressors, to force the world to really see what the oppressed face on a daily basis.
Consider Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930. Brits (white) made it illegal for Indians (not white) to collect or produce salt — because salt had monetary value and therefore was a resource to be manipulated as a weapon of oppression.
So, Gandhi organized thousands of peaceful protesters to walk 241 miles to a British depot to collect salt — to break the law. Gandhi and his supporters knew they would face violent retaliation. They counted on it. And they willingly surrendered their bodies to it, so the world could see what happens when people of color challenge oppression.
American journalist Webb Miller recounted what happened next: “Scores of … police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads … Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins.”
Gandhi was nonviolent, but his message was not heeded until it suffered violence. It took the bloodied bodies and bashed skulls of nonviolent protesters for the white world to take notice, and listen.
The same can be said for King. His campaigns were deftly calculated not to avoid but to walk into the face of white violence, especially in the Children’s Crusade of May 1963. We love to quote King today, but it took news footage of black children facing fire hoses and police dogs for white America to first hear his words.
And we may have continued to ignore King had Malcolm X not been so vocal. With his calls to black nationalism, equality and justice “by any means necessary,” Malcolm X acted as the counterpoint to King’s nonviolence, and made King a palatable alternative for white Americans.
In early 1965, Malcolm X traveled to Selma to support King — who was then in jail — and met instead with his wife, Coretta Scott King. “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult,” he told her. “I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”
Malcolm X understood that for white America to listen to a message of peace, the alternative had to be violence — because violence, from the inception of our nation in genocide and slavery right up to today, is our native tongue. Without Malcolm, and without the searing images of violence in American streets, white America never would have listened to King — and still doesn’t truly hear him.
Some of you may be saying, “Well, we would have listened to peace if it had been offered before these riots.” How much time, then, have you spent over the last two years listening to, following and supporting the Rev. William Barber?
Since summer 2018, Barber has led the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign — a continuation of King’s efforts for equality and justice for people of all races. Nonviolent protests, marches and social media campaigns have canvassed the nation, and yet Barber’s message has been ignored by white America. It is easy to ignore what you do not want to hear — at least until the first Starbucks catches fire.
But since the riots began, Barber has been making the news circuit — denouncing the riots and calling for peace and justice. At the first whiff of tear gas, cable news rooms across the country scrambled to find the most notable nonviolent black activist, and Barber fit the bill.
I in no way mean this as an insult to the Rev. Barber. I do mean it as criticism of white commentators — myself included — who gave the Rev. Barber little notice until riots cast him as the comfortable alternative.
When we — white America — cry out “Peace! Peace is the answer!” we are right. But we must own the fact that we have violated that peace, and ignored the peaceful cries for justice of people of color for 400 years. To cry “peace and order” after willfully refusing to hear the peaceful cries of those dying under the heel of oppression is hypocrisy at its worst.
If we truly want peace to reign in this republic, it must begin in white hearts. It must begin with us — white Americans — listening to the cries of the poor, the starving, the oppressed and marginalized, when they come to us in peace. Only then will we have peace born of justice, instead of unjust power.