In 1961, when the Congress for Racial Equality planned a ‘freedom ride’ through the South to test the integration of interstate transit, they were experimenting in nonviolent direct action — a radical commitment to do what is right whether others deem it convenient, timely, or even legal.

As Black Lives Matter campaigns have arisen in the wake of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray’s deaths, many who are unsettled by their militancy have pointed to the nonviolence of the Freedom Riders and others in America’s Civil Rights Movement. Nonviolence sounds like a favorable alternative when Baltimore is burning.

But nonviolent direct action is never convenient; Mother’s Day 1961 was interrupted by images of a bus burning in Anniston, Alabama, when Freedom Riders were attacked by the Ku Klux Klan with the permission (if not collusion) of local authorities. For all of their commitment to nonviolence, the Freedom Rider’s direct action still unleashed a storm of fire.

When we pay attention, there’s a fire at the heart of our shared life in America. The question Baltimore is forcing us to consider is whether we will be consumed by these flames or saved from them?

Last week, I traveled with a group of 21st-Century Freedom Riders down into the South, re-visiting sites of the 1960s Freedom Movement to pay attention to what they offer us today. Bob Zellner, a veteran of the struggle 50 years ago who is still fighting for justice today, taught us a freedom song as we rode:

Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right–
Been down into the South–
There’s folks up there both black and white–
Been down into the South.

At our first stop in Birmingham, Alabama, we met with Jim Douglass, who told us the story of Dr. King’s turning to face the unspeakable in America’s public life. For Dr. King, nonviolence was the flip side of the violent contradiction at the heart of America. Birmingham (and Dr. King’s famous letter from its jail) was a station on the way toward realizing just how cruel America can be. While he prayed that going to jail on Easter weekend might be enough to grab the nation’s attention, the response was criticism from local ministers for stirring up trouble and trying to change things too quickly.

The Christian response to nonviolent direct action in 1963 sounded similar to many critiques of Baltimore’s uprising today: yes, injustice is wrong. But we must be patient. Don’t stir up trouble. Hold on just a little while longer.

The break through in Birmingham in 1963 came neither from the preachers who strategized the campaign nor the majority who opposed it, but from the children who were inspired to march. Images of police dogs attacking boys and girls went around the world, compelling the federal government to pass a Civil Rights Act the following year.

When you come to a dead end, nonviolence teaches you to look for a resurrection.

Birmingham was a great victory in the struggle, won through an unexpected gift. But it was not the end. Like the Movement before us, we traveled on to Selma, where King joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1965 to highlight the need for voting rights. Without the ballot, the basic dignity of black people could never be protected in the South. (Herein are the origins of “black power.”) The Dallas County Voter’s League had known this since the 1930s, and SNCC had come to Selma to support their work after learning the importance of local, grassroots organizing. On his journey toward facing the unspeakable, Dr. King came to Selma. Without a doubt, as the new movie makes clear, the Voting Rights Act was won through the nonviolent struggle in Selma.

But the struggle didn’t start when King came to Selma. And it didn’t end here in 1965. Standing at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we remembered the blood that was spilled on this holy ground. I closed my eyes and thought of the four martyrs memorialized on the wall of Brown Chapel — Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniel. Each of them, as it happened, was standing up for someone else when they were killed. Three of the four were white.

Nothing unleashes the fire of America’s unspeakable violence like solidarity across dividing lines — a direct action against the lie of division.

Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right–
Been down into the South–
There’s folks up there both black and white–
Been down into the South.

Two people walking across the bridge in Selma.

Nonviolence doesn't mean being 'soft' or a pushover. It was born among people who knew how to fight. Above, the author at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama. Credit: Author.

We drove on to Montgomery, “the cradle of the Confederacy.” It was also the cradle of nonviolent direct action in America — the place where, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus and a nonviolent movement was born in America. But my, what a violent city. Stolen from the Indians, this river port became a hub for the 19th century slave trade. Jefferson Davis stood on the balcony of the Exchange Hotel downtown to be announced as President of the Confederate States of America. Immediately following Reconstruction, white supremacy was written into the state Constitution, giving legal backing to a reign of terror in which black people were lynched, raped, and leased as convicts in a peonage system that re-enslaved them. The “quiet seamstress” who became the symbol of Montgomery’s boycott had begun fighting when she and her husband stood up for the Scottsboro Boys in 1931. For the next two decades, Rosa Parks had been a rebel without a pause, investigating abuses of African-Americans, organizing the NAACP, and building a Youth Council to carry the struggle forward.

Nonviolence didn’t come to America and grab King as its spokesperson because quiet, long-suffering people had the patience to wait for the system to do its job. After decades of struggle, nonviolence emerged as a more powerful weapon in the struggle to overthrow a death-dealing system that cripples us all. Nonviolence was born among people who knew how to fight.

At the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, we sat together in a former slave warehouse and talked about how our history of racial injustice led to mass incarceration in the 21st-century. We heard about the legal lynching of black men in Alabama through the death penalty and the work EJI has done not only to represent men wrongfully convicted, but also to share their stories. Ray Hinton, who was released after 30 years just weeks ago, told us the story of how he crossed over. He looked at the young white man who’d worked on his legal team and said, “My mamma died when I was locked up. These people are my family now.”

Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right–
Been down into the South–
There’s folks up there both black and white–
Been down into the South.

Across the Alabama state line, in Southwest Georgia, we paused at Koinonia Farm to let our spirits catch up with our bodies and consider what it means to be caught up in this story of faith-rooted struggle. Black and white have been living and working together at Koinonia Farm since 1942. Clarence Jordan, one of their founders, called it a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.” In the early 50s, when Dr. Jordan was better known than the young Rev. King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the two developed a friendship. Interracialism went hand-in-hand with nonviolence for Jordan. These were gospel truths at the heart of Koinonia’s life. As King learned nonviolence while proclaiming it to Montgomery and then America, he and Jordan argued about what it looks like in practice.

Koinonia Farm turned out to be a good place for us to discern the practical implications of nonviolence today.

Is a boycott necessarily nonviolent? As the Montgomery Improvement Association was organizing one, Jordan and Koinonia were suffering another of a different kind. No business in Sumter County would trade with them. When the KKK blew up their roadside farm stand and shot up their homes, local authorities accused Koinonia of doing it themselves… to attract donations. A boycott, Jordan knew, could be extremely violent.

What, then, is the heart of nonviolence? How do we tap this force more powerful to face the unspeakable evil in ourselves and in our world?

Part of inhabiting these stories is learning the roles we play — parts we were born into and can never simply walk away from. Jordan knew he was a white man, just as King knew he was black. Nonviolence isn’t discerned in a vacuum. It must be embodied.

We workshopped Rosa Park’s sit-in. It’s one thing to remember this as the “simple act” that started the modern Civil Rights Movement. It’s another to consider what it must have felt like to the other white passengers, to black passengers who were trying to get home and feed their families. To the bus driver. To the police.

A young white man who’s been learning to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement talked about what it felt like to play the officer. “I had no choice; if she was going to challenge my authority, I couldn’t back down. I went into ‘enforce’ mode.” He felt more violent than he liked to think of himself as being.

This is not a convenient truth to face. Does nonviolent direct action stir up violence? Are we really called to do things that make people more uncomfortable in a world already fragile and broken?

Yes, the killing of unarmed black people is wrong. And, as today’s young activists are helping us see, this is but one symptom of systemic violence against black life. We face an almost unspeakable violence, deep at the heart of who we are.

But how will we ever get to justice if we can’t trust the system? Don’t direct actions to “shut it down” just make things more complicated? Where do we who believe in freedom draw the line when those desperate for change destroy cop cars and set buildings on fire? If nonviolence is a more militant way to challenge the system, how can it challenge the new Jim Crow?

I ask Bob Zellner if, during the 60s, he was ever accused of creating more violence through nonviolent direct action. I know the answer. The better question would be, which time?

Take February of 1962, a few months after Bob’s first freedom ride. He rode with fellow SNCC field secretary Chuck McDew to see about a friend who’d been arrested in Baton Rouge. For inquiring about their friend, they were arrested and charged with “criminal anarchy.”

A white man questioning white supremacy, Bob was separated from Chuck and sent to the white section of the segregated jail. There guards goaded his fellow inmates to teach him the racial norms he and Chuck were challenging. After the white inmates nearly beat Bob to death, he was moved to solitary confinement, where both he and Chuck were tortured. Their nonviolence seemed to enrage the officers, expressing violence from within them as a doctor might express a wound. Somehow, they found courage to press on, unsure of their future. They sang freedom songs together.

A year and half later, at the March on Washington, organizers told SNCC not to sing freedom songs — they didn’t want to incite fears or stir up a riot. Bob and Chuck sang anyway, leading their friends in a song they’d written on the drive back from the Baton Rouge jail:

Well, I haven’t been to heaven but I think I’m right–
Been down into the South–
There’s folks up there both black and white–
Been down into the South.

When Dr. King delivered his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, it wasn’t the dream that caught their ear, but the exhortation. “Go back to Mississippi. Go back to Alabama. Go back to Georgia.” In short, go back to the South.

Go back, Bob did. And he’s been going back ever since. Once you’ve been down into the South, nonviolence isn’t as neat and simple as it seemed when you learned about it in a U.S. history class. But it feels real — and incredibly powerful. Especially as you learn to sing it, right up into the present.

This piece was the May Newsletter for the School for Conversion,

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a celebrated spiritual writer and sought-after speaker. A native of North Carolina, he is a graduate of Eastern University and Duke Divinity School. He lives with his family at the Rutba House, a Christian community and house of hospitality, in Durham, North Carolina. This piece is adapted from the School for Conversion‘s May newsletter, where Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is director.


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