Recently we have seen the fiftieth anniversary of two seminal events in the history of the civil rights movement: the 1963 March on Washington and the Birmingham church bombing. Each event has something to tell us about race and oppression, but are we learning the right lessons?  At the March on Washington anniversary celebration the weekend before the actual anniversary we had another gathering of fewer people but we had speakers to remind the crowd of how we may have made some progress but we still have far to go. On the Wednesday of the actual anniversary we again had speeches from leaders including President Obama though they couldn’t hold a candle to the originals. I have often felt that there has been too much emphasis on the speakers rather than the audience. Although Martin Luther King’s oratory on that day soared I always felt that he would disagree with the constant reminder that that speech became what is remembered about that day. It smacks of what he called “the drum major instinct” where leaders become enamored of the notoriety and fame of their place at the head of the band. I have always felt that historians and teachers have placed too much of their lessons on the few who were on the stage rather than the many who were in the audience.  After all it is the band that makes the music and without them the drum major is just a man flapping his arms. The real heroes of that day, indeed of the entire civil rights movement, were the ordinary people who did extraordinary things like travel by car, bus or foot to Washington D.C. that day. They are the ones who, often at the risk of injury or death, marched, sat-in, protested, or tried to vote.  They are the ones who worked to end the indignities, fear and violence that was a part of segregation.

The other anniversary to note is the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that killed four little girls and injured others. It was an action whose savagery, location, and innocent victims shocked America and made clear the violence that enforced and underlay segregation. A major part of King’s nonviolent action was to make that violence manifest itself by bringing it down upon himself and his fellow civil rights workers. The hope was that their clearly undeserved suffering would stir the consciences of Americans. The leaders of Birmingham were  happy to oblige. The adolescent industry of television was able to broadcast it to the entire country and the world.  Newspapers around the world blared headlines so loud that civil rights became a Cold War foreign policy issue for the U.S. government. The bombing of the church and the deaths of these children made the country and world understand that what southerners wanted to present as a peculiar social practice was actually enforced by murder, hatred and viciousness.

I have often told students that oppression can’t be maintained by violence alone.  There is a psychological component to it in which the people being oppressed have to be so intimidated by violence that they accept their oppression as an unfortunate but unchangeable reality.  They may even accept the logic or rationale upon which their oppression is based. Franz Fanon has explored this psychological aspect of oppression through out his work especially in Wretched of the Earth. He concludes that the oppressed, in his case the colonized, can, must, and will throw off their psychological acceptance of their oppression.  For Fanon this can only be done through violence against the oppressor.  His model and experience of this was the Algerian battle against the French forever immortalized in the magnificent film The Battle of Algiers. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to do this nonviolently and it is in this context that we need to view the March on Washington. The march was an attempt to bring all the people who were working on the front-lines of the battle against racism together.  It was an occasion to demonstrate the widespread support that the movement had, an occasion to show the foot soldiers that they were not alone, an occasion to provide inspiration to continue and an occasion to demonstrate that the movement was an interracial one. It was acknowledgement, encouragement and respite for those who had successfully overcome the psychological bonds of racism.

Just as the victims of racism had to overcome their belief in its inevitability and sometimes their belief in their own inferiority, the perpetrators of racism and the silent majority who allowed it to occur, had to overcome their sense of its correctness, inevitability and necessity. Racism’s underlying logic was that there was an inferiority among all blacks and a superiority among all whites that made segregation or second class treatment of African Americans the thing to do. Segregation was only common sense since God had made blacks inferior and entrusted their care to superior whites. The Birmingham bombing shattered the self righteousness of their belief in segregation. Even if they still believed in the inferiority of blacks could they accept what the maintenance of the racist system required or led to? Were you really superior if you had to bomb churches and kill children to prove it? In blindly following the logic of their system could they live with what they had become? The bombing produced cracks in the support of the segregation system, cracks that would eventually bring about its downfall.

Amid all the hoopla it is therefore necessary to examine these events for their real meaning and not the one popular culture, superficial history, politics and the media give to them. I believe their weakening of the psychological aspects of oppression were key.

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