By David Carlson
For a few years, our son lived and worked in Washington, D.C. On one visit, we walked to see the two monuments in Washington that mean the most to me: the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.
There are clear similarities in the stories of these two national heroes. Both worked for human equality, and both paid for that commitment with their lives. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was fittingly delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
But in the wake of Charlottesville, my memories were of the differences between the two memorials. Lincoln sits on a throne-like chair, a man tired after seeing our country through the Civil War. In contrast, King is portrayed standing, arms folded across his chest, eyes looking ahead. If Lincoln seems to be resting, Martin Luther King stands brooding over our nation’s capital and over our country.
Of the two, it was Martin Luther King’s spirit that I felt more strongly as I watched the battle in the streets of Charlottesville. Or, perhaps it would be fairer to say, I found King’s spirit most absent from the terrible scenes we watched on TV.
King would not have been surprised at the presence of violent white supremacists and Klansmen in the streets of Charlottesville. He’d faced their fury too many times to be shocked. King knew that the original sin of America is racism, and he understood perhaps more than anyone else how difficult this deep-seated sin would be to overcome.
No, the sickening hatred of those offering Nazi salutes and proudly identifying with the Klan was well-known to King. What would have disappointed King about Charlottesville was how his strategy to confront such moral sickness was forgotten that day.
The white supremacists and Klansmen got just what they wanted that day. They were hoping for a violent confrontation with those opposing them, knowing rioting in the streets would bring maximum media coverage. With each blow struck, the anger of the white supremacists and the anger on the other side accelerated until it was white hot (no pun intended). The streets of Charlottesville turned into a mini civil war — just what the supremacists wanted.
What King had learned from Gandhi and put into practice in the long civil rights movement was that resistance is essential, but not all resistance is effective.
Gandhi and King knew that the most effective response to racism is non-violent resistance. Before all his marches, those trained by King knew how to respond to attacks by dogs, water hoses, clubs and guns. If marchers couldn’t pledge a non-violent reaction, they couldn’t march with King.
So here is how Charlottesville might have gone if the wisdom of Gandhi and King had been followed that awful day. Imagine the white supremacists marching down the street, clubs and fists ready, but instead of meeting others with clubs and fists, they met hundreds of people sitting down and blocking their way. Some of those sitting would have been praying, others singing and others sitting in silence, but no one meeting violence with violence.
Imagine then that the white supremacists would have attacked those sitting, hoping for a violent response but hearing only prayers and songs. Bodies would likely have been bloodied, but other protesters would have non-violently taken their place in the street. The police might have arrested some of those sitting down for demonstrating without a permit, but it would have been clear to the police, to those watching around the world, and even to some of the white supremacists which side was exhibiting what Gandhi called “soul force.”
White supremacists were emboldened by Charlottesville and look forward to other skirmishes in the streets. Those of us committed to opposing racism must prepare ourselves for what is coming, but we must weigh how best to confront the sickness of racism.
We can either choose to give white supremacists the battle in the streets that they desire, or we can remember the wisdom of King: an eye for an eye will eventually leave us all blind.
David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College. Send comments to email@example.com.