Is ‘Mass Nonviolent Action’ Needed to Fight White Supremacists? Civil Rights Hero John Lewis Speaks Out

For many Americans, the images coming out of Charlottesville earlier this month were a terrifying jolt of reality, depicting a country they no longer recognized: white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching across the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, holding flaming tiki torches, chanting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil,” and slinging anti-Semitic lines like “Jews will not replace us.” Brawls erupted with Black Lives Matter activists, anti-fascists, religious leaders and other counterprotesters. And then an alleged Nazi sympathizer driving a gray Dodge Challenger mowed down a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others.

Many of those Americans were overwhelmed by a desire to act, yet paralyzed by what exactly they should do. Is talking to one’s children enough? Should people organize and protest nonviolently? Or are Antifa’s aggressive tactics required to beat back white supremacy?

“A lot of people looked at Charlottesville and thought, Whoa, where did this come from?” says Stanislav Vysotsky, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who has studied the conflicts between fascists and anti-fascists for the past 15 years. “There was this belief that these groups went away sometime in the mid- to late 1960s, that there are pockets of hate here and there. The thing is, those pockets were the tip of an iceberg floating, waiting for the moment to surface.”

That moment is now. The scene in Charlottesville was a bloody reminder that more than 50 years after the civil rights movement, racism is still deeply embedded in American society. There are currently 917 hate groups operating across the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Since 2010, around 6,000 hate crime incidents have been reported to the FBI each year, although the real number is likely closer to 260,000 a year because most hate crimes are never reported. With a president who won the election on a platform of hatred—who’s insulted Gold Star families, mocked a disabled reporter, waged war on immigrants, disparaged women and spent more time lying and ranting about Charlottesville than uniting the country—many Americans have been feeling powerless, often leaderless. What is the best way to make an impact?

08_24_lewis_02 Congressman John Lewis, left, and then-President Barack Obama lead a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches. Lewis, a civil rights leader, was among the original marchers. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to do something,” says Congressman John Lewis, who was born in Alabama to sharecropper parents and grew up to become one of the most important civil rights icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. “You have to speak up, speak out, make a little noise. Whatever you do, do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion.”

That approach was at the heart of Lewis’s leadership in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when he participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins to protest segregation in the South and led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966. He also organized the pivotal march from Selma to Montgomery that we now know as “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama state troopers brutally attacked 600 peaceful protesters with clubs and tear gas as they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the name of voting rights for black Americans.

“I wish I had a copy of the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of the sit-in movement that we drafted and used when 89 of us were arrested on February 27,” Lewis says, referring to the 1960 protest in Nashville that opposed segregated lunch counters. He ticks off some of the do’s: “Look straight ahead. Recognize your opponent. Try to look him straight in the eye. Show a friendly side. Make that eye contact—you’re a fellow human being! You stand there with a sense of dignity and pride, and move people to respect your own humanity as you respect their humanity.”

Of course, that doesn't mean your opponents will treat you with the same grace. That day in February 1960, a crowd opposing desegregation attacked the young protesters sitting peacefully at lunch counters, harassing them, beating them, even pushing one down a flight of stairs. “Not a single person struck back,” Lewis says, and yet police arrested more than 80 sit-in students and charged them with disorderly conduct. None of the white attackers were taken into custody.

Lewis, who has been arrested more than 40 times and often talks about being “beaten and left bloody and unconscious,” was “deeply shocked” by the violence in Charlottesville. “I cried. It was unreal, unbelievable. I thought that we had come much farther along.… I think this calls for a greater degree of action and a greater commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence. There must be mass nonviolent actions by the American people, from coast to coast.”

But how can a single person spark such widespread action? Sometimes, the easiest way to do something is to start talking—with anyone: your children, neighbors, friends, colleagues. “Talk about the way slavery transformed into Jim Crow and how that was defended violently, and the way in which, when Jim Crow was finally overturned legally, groups that violently defended Jim Crow didn’t go away—they just went underground,” says Vysotsky. “They’ve spent the last 40 to 50 years coming up with strategies, an approach, a way of networking and building. That conversation alone is really important to have, to at least understand the context.”

08_24_charlottesville_02 People receive first aid after a car ran into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Lecia Brooks, SPLC’s outreach director, suggests another kind of conversation: “White people need to talk to their kids and families about what it means to be white, especially what it means to be white today, as the demographics shift and they are no longer in the majority,” she says, referring to the prediction that the U.S. will become a minority-majority nation by 2044. “If they don’t talk to their kids about what it means to be white, the white supremacists will.”

Soon after the Charlottesville violence, the SPLC published Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide, which focuses on everything from education and supporting victims to engaging with the media and teaching acceptance. “The best thing to do is organize in your own communities,” Brooks says. “If Charlottesville taught us anything, [it’s that] now is the time to take a stand together against white supremacy and white nationalism. Folks coming together across different groups—interfaith, Black Lives Matter—must take a stand together and bring pressure locally, and that will reverberate nationally. We need to speak out loudly and together.”

That strategy worked in Boston last weekend, when 40,000 people flooded the Boston Common to protest a “free speech” rally organized by white supremacist groups. It also made a difference last January, when tens of thousands of Americans gathered at more than 40 airports around the country to protest Trump’s travel ban on seven mostly Muslim countries.

“You don’t need to get out in the street with a mask and a baseball bat. For a lot of people, that’s scary,” Vysotsky says. Anarchists and Antifa, however, use violence as “strategic self-defense,” he says. “They tactically see nonviolent responses to [the alt-right] as giving the supremacists what they want—subjects for their violence—so they fight back as a means of demonstrating that they will not be intimidated.… The role of anti-fascists is to stop the event, but there are other folks who want to do something in a safe way. To work together on that would really be a way forward.”

Brooks agrees: “Far-right extremists crave chaos and violent confrontation as a way to bolster the false narrative that they are under attack,” she says. “The SPLC is deeply committed to the principles of nonviolence. In the early days of the civil rights movement, this strategy was not universally embraced. Organizers taught and trained folks, and that proved to be brilliant and effective.”

If you’re not sure what to do next, try clicking on one of the following links. The Zinn Education Project, for example, is based on renowned historian Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States, and introduces middle- and high-school students to “a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula.” The Catalyst Project in the San Francisco Bay Area works with white communities to deepen anti-racist commitment. Facing History and Ourselves is a 40-year-old nonprofit that fights racism and anti-Semitism by educating students about history. And the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond is one of the leading anti-racism training and organizing institutions in the country.

Vysotsky knows of a knitting group that turned into a place for people to talk about current events and plan protests. “There’s a repertoire of tactics, an infinite number of things people can do. Anything you do is better than nothing. Get involved to the best level that you can commit.”

Lewis hopes to see more “talk-ins and teach-ins” and people willing to organize, mobilize and speak out, not just with friends and family but with like-minded people from around the country. “I think people in motion—hundreds, thousands, millions of people in motion, marching in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion—will help,” he says. “The issue of race, of justice, of fairness, it’s a single issue. It’s a question of what is right and what is wrong. There cannot be many sides or two sides.”

08_24_heyer_02 In Minneapolis, a protester carries an image of Heather Heyer on August 14 during a demonstration against racism and the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Past presidents understood this point.

In June 1963, John F. Kennedy redefined civil rights as a “moral issue” in his Civil Rights Address, saying, “If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?…  A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.”

Two years later, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, President Johnson responded to the pain and suffering sweeping civil rights activists across the American South with a monumental speech in March 1965, saying, “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

In 2015, nine days after white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and gunned down nine people during Bible study, President Barack Obama delivered a profoundly moving eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was one of the victims. After speaking for 35 minutes, he paused for 13 seconds—the longest silence of the entire speech—then sang “Amazing Grace” in the tradition of the black church. It’s been called one of the most powerful moments of his presidency.

Since Heyer was killed at the Charlottesville protest, Trump has been more concerned with blaming “both sides,” lambasting journalists and talking about himself than unifying Americans and eradicating hatred and bigotry. He’s proved that his promise to “make America great again” was actually a vow to make America white again as he half-heartedly condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Yet he failed to name or condemn the neo-Nazis, white nationalists and alt-right movement behind the violence in Charlottesville. And he continued to defend this rhetoric on Tuesday night during his speech-turned-angry-rant in Phoenix, while castigating media’s reporting on his divisive rhetoric.

“We need someone with a moral commitment,” Lewis says. “As Martin Luther King said, we need a headlight, not a taillight. Not someone who’s just gonna follow what is popular, but follow what is right, what is just, what is fair, and lead the American people to a higher place, a better place.”

We don’t know who that is yet, but let’s hope he or she is about to take that first vital step.

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