The Limits of Nonviolence
by Howard Zinn

Originally published in Freedomways, 1st Quarter, 1964.

When I went to Albany, Georgia, during the first wave of demonstrations and mass arrests in December of 1961, I had been in Atlanta for five years and thought I had learned some important things about the South, as observer and minor participant in the civil rights struggle. I had written an optimistic article for Harper's Magazine about the possibility of changing the behavior (not immediately his thinking) of the white southerner without violence, by playing upon his self-interest, whether through economic pressure or other means which would forcefully confront him with hard choices. And in Atlanta, I saw such changes come about, through the pressure of lawsuits, sit-ins, boycotts, and sometimes by just the threat of such actions. Nonviolence was not only hugely appealing as a concept. It worked.

And then I took a good look at Albany, and came back troubled. Eight months later, when the second crisis broke out in Albany, in the summer of 1962, I drove down again from Atlanta. The picture was the same. Again, mass demonstrations and mass arrests. Again, the federal government stood by impotent while the chief of police took control of the constitutional rights of citizens.

My optimism was shaken but still alive. To those people around me who said that Albany was a huge defeat, I replied that you could not measure victories and defeats only by tangible results in the desegregation of specific facilities, that a tremendous change had taken place in the thinking of Albany's Negroes, that expectations had been raised which could not be stilled until the city was transformed.

Today, over a year later, after studying events in Birmingham and Gadsden and Danville and Americus, after interviewing staff workers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee just out of jail in Greenwood, Mississippi, watching state troopers in action in Selma, Alabama, and talking at length to voter registration workers in Greenville, Mississippi, I am rethinking some of my oId views. Albany, it seems to me, was the first dramatic evidence of a phenomenon which now has been seen often enough to be believed: that there is a part of the South impermeable by the ordinary activities of nonviolent direct action, a monolithic South completely controlled by politicians, police, dogs, and prod sticks. And for this South, special tactics are required.

One portion of the South has already been removed from the old Confederacy. This part of the South, represented by places like Richmond, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, and Atlanta, is still fundamentally segregationist — as is the rest of the nation, North and South — but the first cracks have appeared in a formerly solid social structure. In these places, there is fluidity and promise, room for maneuver and pressure and accommodation; there is an economic elite sophisticated enough to know how badly it can be hurt by outright resistance, and political leaders shrewd enough to take cognizance of a growing Negro electorate. There will be much conflict yet in Atlanta and in Memphis. But the tactics of nonviolent direct action can force ever greater gains there.

Where Slavery Still Lingers

Then there is the South of Albany and Americus, Georgia; of Gadsden and Selma, Alabama; of Danville, Virginia; of Plaquemine, Louisiana; of Greenwood and Hattiesburg and Yazoo City, Mississippi — and a hundred other towns of the Black Belt. Here, where the smell of slavery still lingers, politicians are implacable, plantation owners relentless, policemen unchecked by the slightest fear of judgment. In these towns of the Black Belt, a solid stone wall separates black from white, and reason from fanaticism; nonviolent demonstrations smash themselves to bits against this wall, leaving pain, frustration, bewilderment, even though the basic resolve to win remains alive, and some kind of ingenuous optimism is left untouched by defeat after defeat.

I still believe that the Albany Movement, set back again and again by police power, has done a magnificent service to the Negroes of Albany — and ultimately, to the whites who live in that morally cramped town. I still believe that the three hundred Negroes who waited on line near the county courthouse in Selma, Alabama from morning to evening in the shadow of clubs and guns to register to vote, without even entering the doors of that courthouse, accomplished something. But I no longer hold that a simple repetition of such nonviolent demonstrative action — which effectively broke through barriers in the other part of the South — will bring victory. I am now convinced that the stone wall which blocks expectant Negroes in every town and village of the hard-core South, a wall stained with the blood of children, as well as others, and with an infinite capacity to absorb the blood of more victims — will have to be crumbled by hammer blows.

Federal Government Must Act

This can be done, it seems to me, in one of two ways. The first is a Negro revolt, armed and unswerving, in Mississippi, Alabama and southwest Georgia, which would result in a terrible waste of human life. That may be hard to avoid unless the second alternative comes to pass: the forceful intervention of the national government, to smash, with speed and efficiency, every attempt by local policemen or politicians to deprive Negroes (or others) of the rights supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution.

Unaware of the distinction between the two Souths, not called upon for such action in places like Atlanta and Nashville, and uncommitted emotionally and ideologically to racial equality as a first level value, the national government has played the role of a hesitant, timorous observer. It will have to move into bold action, or face trouble such as we have not seen yet in the civil rights crisis. This is my thesis here, and the story of Albany, Georgia may help illustrate it.

Federal law was violated again and again in Albany, yet the federal government did not act. In effect, over a thousand Negroes spent time in prison, and thousands more suffered and sacrificed, in ways that cannot be expressed adequately on paper, as a mass substitute for federal action.

Judicial decisions in this century have made it clear that the Fourteenth Amendment, besides barring officials from dispensing unequal treatment on the basis of race, also prohibits them from interfering with the First Amendment rights of free speech, petition, and assembly. Yet in Albany over one thousand Negroes were locked up in some of the most miserable jails in the country for peacefully attempting to petition the local government for a redress of grievances. And the Justice Department did nothing.

Section 242 of the U.S. Criminal Code, which comes from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Enforcement Act of 1870, creates a legal basis for prosecution of: "Whoever, under color of any law ... wilfully subjects ... any inhabitant of any State ... to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States ..." Three times in succession, in November and December 1961, the police of the city of Albany, by arresting Negroes and whites in connection with their use of the terminal facilities in that city, violated a right which has been made clear beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yet the federal government took no action.

Today, the wheels of the nonviolent movement are churning slowly, in frustration, through the mud of national indifference which surrounds the stone wall of police power in the city of Albany. As if to give a final blow to the Albany Movement, the Department of Justice is now prosecuting nine of its leaders and members, who face jail sentences up to ten years, in connection with the picketing of a white grocer who had served on a federal jury. One of the defendants is Dr. W.G. Anderson, former head of the Albany Movement. Another is Slater King, now heading the Movement. It is the bitterest of ironies that Slater King, who pleaded in vain for federal action while he himself was jailed, while his wife was beaten by a deputy sheriff, while his brother was beaten, is now being vigorously prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice on a charge which can send him to jail for five years.

The simple and harsh fact, made clear in Albany, and reinforced by events in Americus, Georgia, in Selma and Gadsden, Alabama, in Danville, Virginia, in every town in Mississippi, is that the Federal Government abdicated its responsibility in the Black Belt. The Negro citizens of that area were left to the local police. The United States Constitution was left in the hands of Neanderthal creatures who cannot read it, and whose only response to it has been to grunt and swing their clubs.

Federal Presence Must be Felt

The responsibility is that of the president of the United States, and no one else. It is his job to enforce the law. And the law is clear. Previously the civil rights movement joined in thrusting the responsibility on Congress when the president himself, without any new legislation, had the constitutional power to enforce the 14th Amendment in the Black Belt.

The immediate necessity is for a permanent federal presence in the Deep South. I am not talking of occupation by troops, except as an ultimate weapon. I am suggesting the creation of a special force of federal agents, stationed throughout the Deep South, and authorized to make immediate on-the-spot arrests of any local official who violates federal law. The action would be preventive, before a crisis has developed, and would snuff out incipient fires before they got going, by swift, efficient action. Such a force would have taken Colonel Al Lingo into custody as he was preparing to use his electric prod sticks on the Freedom Walkers crossing the border into Alabama. Such a force would have taken Governor Wallace to the nearest federal prison the very first time he blocked the entrance of a Negro student into the University of Alabama, and would have arrested Sheriff Jim Clark as he moved to drag those two SNCC youngsters off the steps of the federal building in Selma.

Many liberals are affronted by such a suggestion; they worry about civil war. My contention is that the white southerner submits — as do most people — to a clear show of authority. Note how Governors Wallace and Barnett gave in at the last moment rather than go to jail. Once southern police officials realize that the club is in the other hand, that they will be behind bars, that they will have to go through all the legal folderal of getting bond and filing appeal, etc. which thousands of Negroes have had to endure these past few years — things will be different. The national government needs to drive a wedge, as it began to do in the First Reconstruction, between the officialdom and the ordinary white citizen of the South, who is not a rabid brute but a vacillating conformist.

Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, has been much disturbed by this suggestion of "a national police force or some other such extreme alternative." If a national police force is extreme, then the United States is already "extremist," because the Federal Bureau of Investigation is just that. It is stationed throughout the country and has the power to arrest anyone who violates federal law. Thus, it arrests those who violate the federal statutes dealing with bank robberies, interstate auto thefts and interstate kidnapping. But it does not arrest those who violate the civil rights laws. I am suggesting an organization of special agents, who will arrest violators of civil rights laws the way the F.B.I. arrests bank robbers.

The continued dependence on nonviolence by the civil rights movement is now at stake. Nonviolent direct action can work in social situations where there are enough apertures through which economic and political and moral pressure can be applied. But it is ineffective in a totally closed society, in those Black Belt towns of the Deep South where Negroes are jailed and beaten and the power structure of the community stands intact.

The late President Kennedy's political style was one of working from crisis to crisis rather than undertaking fundamental solutions — like a man who settles one debt by contracting another. This can go on and on, until the day of reckoning. And that day may come, in the civil rights crisis, this summer just before the election.

There is a strong probability that this July and August will constitute another "summer of discontent." The expectations among Negroes in the Black Belt have risen to the point where they cannot be quieted. CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and the intrepid youngsters of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), are determined to move forward.

With the probability high of intensified activity in the Black Belt this summer, the President will have to decide what to do. He can stand by and watch Negro protests smashed by the local police, with mass jailings, beatings, and cruelties of various kinds. Or he can take the kind of firm action suggested above, which would simply establish clearly what the Civil War was fought for a hundred years ago, the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution over the entire nation. If he does not act, the Negro community may be pressed by desperation to move beyond the nonviolence which it has maintained so far with amazing self-discipline.

Thus, in a crucial sense, the future of non-violence as a means for social change rests in the hands of the President of the United States. And the civil rights movement faces the problem of how to convince him of this, both by words and by action. For, if non-violent direct action seems to batter itself to death against the police power of the Deep South, perhaps its most effective use is against the national government. The idea is to persuade the executive branch to use its far greater resources of nonviolent pressure to break down the walls of totalitarian rule in the Black Belt.

The latest victim of this terrible age of violence — which crushed the life from four Negro girls in a church basement in Birmingham, and in this century has taken the lives of over fifty million persons in war — is President John F. Kennedy, killed by an assassin's bullet. To President Johnson will fall the unfinished job of ending the violence and fear of violence which has been part of the everyday life of the Negro in the Deep South.

Copyright © Howard Zinn, 1964.


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