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Activism: The strategic and tactical genius of the US civil rights movement

THE recent death of US non-violence guru Gene Sharp and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King provide a good opportunity to reflect on the key role non-violent action has played in winning progressive change.

Sharp, whose extensive writings have influenced many of the campaigns that have overthrown governments across the world, repeatedly emphasised the importance of planning and strategy in carrying out effective non-violent action. Indeed, strategy is “probably more important in non-violent struggle than it is in military conflict,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2012 for Peace News newspaper. 

For Sharp, those wishing to understand non-violent struggle needed to research the topic in depth — reading, at a minimum, his lengthy studies on the subject — rather than basing their opinion on “superficial impressions.”

Even though his birth is marked by a national holiday in the US many people — including myself — have a very superficial understanding of the US civil rights movement King led in the 1950s and ’60s. 

This ignorance is frustrating because the movement is one of the best known and most successful non-violent campaigns in recent history.

Like Sharp, King and the wider leadership of the civil rights movement were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians, with a good knowledge of the theory behind non-violent struggle, especially the movement Mahatma Gandhi led in India which forced out the British imperialists.

Two fascinating documentaries highlight the detailed understanding and use of strategy and planning by the movement that rocked the Deep South in the post-war period. Though they have largely been forgotten, they are both available on YouTube.

Released in 1999, A Force More Powerful tells the story of the movement to desegregate the city of Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959-60. Having spent three years in India studying the work of Gandhi, Methodist minister James Lawson was invited down to Nashville by King to train local black students and citizens to fight for their civil rights.

Lawson set up and led a series of evening workshops in a small church near Fisk University where, he explains, he “took the whole group through a holistic view of non-violence — its history, its roots in the Bible, its roots in Christian thought, the methods of non-violence.” 

After considering the situation, Lawson remembers the group decided to target the lunch counters and restaurants in downtown Nashville and start to research the issue. 

To prepare for the struggle the workshops included role play with activists “sitting” at a lunch counter while being racially abused and physically attacked, and low-key, small scale “test” sit-ins were conducted.

For Lawson, successful non-violent action necessitated “fierce discipline and training, and strategising and planning” which “can’t happen spontaneously, it has to be done systematically.”

The sit-ins began in February 1960, and following mass arrests, violence against the activists and a series of escalations by the movement, including a consumer boycott by the black community, the city had agreed to desegregate lunch counters by May 1960.

“We were warriors. We had been prepared,” notes one activist in the documentary. “This was like a non-violent academy, equivalent to West Point [military academy].”

Despite many successes, the civil rights movement did not simply steamroll over the racist establishment in the Deep South but suffered many difficulties and defeats during the period, all of which had to be recognised and learned from.

The late-1980s 14-part US documentary series Eyes On The Prize tells of one such setback. Like Nashville, black people in Albany, Georgia, had been campaigning to end segregation. 

In late 1961 the local leadership of the Albany movement invited King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the city to energise the campaign. 

Keen students of Gandhi, the SCLC understood a central strategy in the successful campaign in India had been staging confrontational non-violent protests with the understanding the oppressor would react violently, creating media-friendly drama and sympathy for the non-violent protesters. 

Movement organisers “expected the same reaction” in Albany that they “encountered in most Southern communities: police brutality,” the documentary’s narrator explains. 

However, they didn’t reckon with chief of police Laurie Pritchett, who had researched SCLC’s ideas about non-violent struggle. 

“Pritchett was a thoroughly professional law enforcement officer who had the acumen to realise police brutality or violence from white mobs, would draw newspaper reporters to Albany and create sympathy for the movement,” Professor Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 book Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000. 
“Pritchett trained his men to employ a ‘non-violent approach’ toward demonstrators.”

With the internally divided movement fighting for the broad goal of ending segregation in the city, King began serving a 45-day sentence in July 1962, determined to stay in jail, as this would draw attention to, and increase support for, the cause. 

Conversely, Pritchett “understood that it was better to have King outside than inside jail” and secretly arranged for King’s bail to be paid, according to Fairclough. Having been forced out of prison, a depressed King left the still segregated city in August 1962.

Writing in his autobiography, King admits: “The mistake I made there [Albany] was to protest against segregation generally rather than against a single and distinct facet of it. Our protest was so vague that we got nothing, and the people were left very depressed and in despair.”  

Having learned some heard lessons in Albany, King and the SCLC decided their next target would be Birmingham, Alabama, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold and powder keg of racist oppression. 

Though there are, of course, many factors behind the success or failure of any campaign, one central factor in Birmingham was likely the presence of Commissioner “Bull” Connor — “the antithesis of the calm, professional Laurie Pritchett … a vain, short-tempered, publicity-seeking bully, with a notorious reputation for racial extremism,” writes Fairclough.

“We knew when we came to Birmingham that if Bull Connor was still in control, he would do something to benefit our movement,” Wyatt Tee Walker, the first executive director of the SCLC, is quoted as saying in US historian David Garrow’s 1986 book about the SCLC, Bearing The Cross.

Beginning in early 1963, the initial protests made little impact, receiving criticism from some black businesses and a number of local (white) clergymen. 

In response the leadership of the movement escalated the campaign. King was jailed for several days, and, controversially, black schoolchildren were mobilised, with marches organised. 
With tensions mounting, events came to a head, with Connor turning water cannon and police dogs on the protesters. The violence gained national attention, the news coverage shocking the US public and wider world. 

“It was a masterpiece of the use of media to explain a cause to the general public of a nation,” local attorney David Vann explains. 
The campaign continued, with thousands more arrested, and desegregation was eventually won in May 1963.

The movement employed similar strategies in Selma, Alabama, focusing on one goal — winning a strong voting rights law. 

The 1965 campaign was dramatised in the award-winning 2014 film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.

In one gripping scene showing the movement’s leadership discusses the campaign, King (played by David Oyelowo) explains the problems in Albany — that the SCLC made many mistakes, while Pritchett didn’t: “There was no drama,” and therefore no media coverage, he says.

One of the central aims of the Selma campaign is capturing the attention of an inattentive president Lyndon Johnson, King continues. 

The only way of doing this “is by being on the front page of the national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night,” he argues. “And that requires drama.”

Turning to the young activists who have been co-ordinating the campaign in Selma so far, King asks about local sheriff Jim Clark: “Is he Laurie Pritchett, or is he Bull Connor?”

Told Clark is like Connor, one of King’s SCLC colleagues shouts “Bingo!”

Part two coming soon.

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