The August 1963 March on Washington 250 000 People – and not a single act of violence

On the occasion of the birth anniversary (2 October 1869) of Mahatma Gandhi, the iconic apostle of non-violence in modern times, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the subject.

Without doubt non-violence remains of continuing relevance and more than ever a critical need today, specially in the land of the Mahatma, India. The country has been shaken over the past months by several episodes of violence and killings associated with gang-rape (beginning with the one in December 2012 in which the victim, a physiotherapy student in New Delhi, succumbed to her injuries), terrorist attacks, and increasingly bold and frequent incursions, and clashes with militants and soldiers, within the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir.

When we look back at recorded history, from antiquity to our contemporary world, it is apparent that violence in human society has been a constant. Although Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University, has advanced in a book on the subject that we are now living in a less violent world and that the number of wars has declined significantly, still the fact is that ‘the twentieth century was the most murderous in recorded history.’ This is the view of late British historian Eric Hobsbawn, in his book On Empire (2008). He stated that ‘the world as a whole has not been at peace since 1914, and is not at peace now,’ pointing to the estimated number of deaths caused by or associated with wars in the twentieth century: 187 million. The century was dominated by world wars, which were followed by some forty years of the Cold War, then came the ‘1990s… filled with formal and informal military conflict in Europe, Africa, and Western and Central Asia.’

Apart from violence due to large-scale wars and military conflicts – the latter are ongoing in some hotspots in the world – there are other forms which can be equally murderous and fraught with similar gruesome brutality. The causes are many and varied, such as drug trafficking, or are of racial, communal, ethnic, sectarian, religious, sexual or social origin. An example of the latter is ‘honour killings’ in which couples or one partner (most often the female) are killed for ‘dishonouring’ the family by marrying someone outside of prevailing orthodox norms. Society is also replete with all kinds of other civilian crimes, and ‘crimes of passion’ sickeningly make almost daily headlines. One must not forget verbal violence which often leads to some at least of the other types of violence.

As I was going through some of the extensive coverage to commemorate Martin Luther King’s (Jr) ‘I HAVE A DREAM’ speech delivered fifty years ago – on 28 August 1963 – I was struck by the report that there was not a single act of violence during the long march that gathered 250,000 people from all races, communities and social strata in Washington on that exceedingly hot summer day. This too was a march for rights and freedom, and the contrast with the violence and deaths that have marred the recent uprisings in the Arab world is glaring. President John Kennedy listened to the whole of the speech on television in the White House, and was fearful of potential mayhem. Afterwards, he received Dr King and all the leaders of the march.

I was taken back to another rally that I had witnessed in May 1994, a few days prior to the general elections that would propel for the first time another iconic figure, Nelson Mandela, to power. It was in a wide thoroughfare in central Durban, and a local friend suggested that we go and watch the procession which would be taking place, by the supporters of Nelson Mandela. As we leaned against his car parked on the side of the road, we joined lines of spectators to look at the huge crowd that was marching down the street.

The marchers were cheering groups of dancers in traditional African attire wielding spears and singing loudly; not only was it an awesome sight, there was palpable tension in the air, and a fear of violence. But no: there was perfect order and discipline, maintained by marshals wearing armbands, seen at regular intervals along and walking with the crowd, not allowing anyone to stray into the line of spectators. When we saw the marshals at work, we felt an immediate reassurance. I do not know, but I assume that there must have been a very strict call by the leader, Nelson Mandela, to avoid violence.

As I read about the meticulous planning of the Washington March, in which six major groups participated, about other protests that had been led Dr King (Jr), about the star participants – the great Harry Bellafonte, one of my favourite singers of the time –, about how people had travelled from all over the US to be present on that sweltering day, about all that had gone into the preparation of the text of King’s speech, I could appreciate as I had never done before why that march and that speech have gone down as being a transformative moment in America’s short history. To paraphrase a well-known saying, many who were present there felt blessed to be alive on that day, if we go by some of the personal testimonies that have been published.

That famous and oft-quoted speech was a masterpiece of oratory and vocabulary, of ideas and messages borne on the waves of quasi-poetic melody being played on the lips of Dr King. It was pitched at the level of high morality and natural justice, of the ideals defined and affirmed by the Founding Fathers of the American nation, and was meant to prick the moral conscience of all lovers of justice, the justice that was being denied to all indiscriminately as the Constitution had promised.

What is less known perhaps is that at one point King deviated from the written text, and that was when the celebrated singer and his friend Mahalia Jackson, who was standing there on the dais, prompted him, ‘Martin, tell’em about the dream!’ To be able to take on from there, at a tangent from the prepared text, and on the spur of the moment speak words that would make history, reflected his deep involvement in the cause he was defending, his grounding in academia and his training as a preacher, his understanding of and broad exposure to world-moving ideas, and his grassroots experience of wrongs suffered and justice denied.

It is no secret that, in addition to his own Christian roots, King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and both drew from the fountain springs of David Thoreau (whose essay on civil disobedience King had read) and Leo Tolstoy. It has been written that, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s success with non-violent activism, King had “for a long time… wanted to take a trip to India”. With assistance from the Quaker group the American Friends Service Committee, he was able to make the journey in April 1959. The trip to India affected King, deepening his understanding of non-violent resistance and his commitment to America’s struggle for civil rights. In a radio address made during his final evening in India, King reflected, “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity”.

King’s admiration of Gandhi’s non-violence did not diminish in later years, he went so far as to hold up his example when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, hailing the “successful precedent” of using non-violence “in a magnificent way by Mohandas K. Gandhi to Challenge the might of the British Empire… He struggled only with the weapons of truth, soul force, non-injury and courage.”

This extract from his speech illustrates his pacific mindset at that time:

‘There is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.’

Alas there were other forces which either did not agree with King’s non-violent approach or with his aspiration to have equal justice to all according to the Constitution and the American Declaration of Independence. Some even presumed he had ties with the communists, or communist leanings. He died from an assassin’s bullet in 1969, at the young age of thirty-nine.

But he left as legacy the march’s victories: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. His dream is not yet completely fulfilled – but which dreams of such reach have ever been? So figuratively the march is still on, the fulfilment of the dream a work in progress for, as Hilary Clinton is quoted as remarking, ‘Anyone who says that racial discrimination is not a problem in American elections must not be paying attention.’

Would that latter-day protesters of all hue take inspiration from King, just as he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and wage their struggles in a similar spirit of shunning of violence, harbouring no hatred, and in dignity and discipline. And, above all, be guided by a soul force.

* Published in print edition on 4 October 2013

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