Nonviolence, a potent force in the 1960s fight for civil rights, has become an "embarrassment, an instrument of the weak," lamented Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch.
Seated in a wing chair Sunday afternoon in the chancel of First and Franklin Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon, the author described how the strategy has fallen from favor.
The Atlanta-born Branch, the son of a dry cleaner, wrote three books on the life of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He was later invited by President Bill Clinton for a series of lengthy interviews at the White House for a work on Clinton's presidency. The historian described himself as a storyteller, one who searches for facts and narratives "that I could not find in libraries."
Branch spoke for more than an hour and intertwined his thoughts on the nonviolent tradition with concepts of race, religion and history. He told the crowd of about 75 — many of them members of the church's congregation — that nonviolence knitted religion and democracy together. He said that it mixed the promise of freedom with the "heart of our faith."
"We don't really understand the dividends that nonviolence has paid," he said of the strategy for social change.
"Nonviolence set off a broad and wonderful expanse of freedom. It was not just the gains made for black people," he said. "Later, women's rights advanced out of this movement. So did the rights of gays and the disabled people who had been shunted aside."
He said that King and other civil rights leaders used nonviolence as a valuable and "potent tool" in the 1960s, particularly in Mississippi, during the era of the Freedom Riders and the peaceful protests. "For Martin Luther King, nonviolence was a leadership doctrine," he said.
But by the time of King's death in 1968, it was being discredited by others in the movement as being "old-fashioned" and "pious." He cited Stokely Carmichael and others as deflecting attention away from the nonviolent philosophy as they advanced their own, more strident approaches.
"Stokely Carmichael became more fashionable," said Branch. "Nonviolence became nonrespectable in the New York Review of Books."
At one point, the author discussed listening to hours' worth of presidential archive recorded conversations, as well as the FBI's wiretapped conversations of King, who was being investigated as subversive in the 1960s. King's politics and his eschewal of force startled law enforcement agencies.
"It was interesting. The actual FBI agents gave a very accurate account of what King was saying on the phone. His words were distorted as they were passed farther up in the bureaucracy, until they got to [director] J. Edgar Hoover," Branch said.
He argued that if nonviolence accomplished so much four decades ago, it has a place today.
"We don't speak of the power of nonviolence today. But it's nuclear," Branch said.
"There was an optimism surrounding the politics of the 1960s that was appreciated around the world. I see it in the fall of the Berlin Wall. I see it in the "velvet revolution" of Czechoslovakia. I see it in the students at Tiananmen Square."
Branch mused upon the politically aware 1960s and how the climate of national politics has changed.
"In the U.S. today, we are too politically cynical," he said. "And cynicism creates a curdled feeling. We remain resigned to being that way, too."
First and Franklin's pastor, the Rev. Alison Halsey, said Branch's talk was "the best sermon I've heard preached here in a long time."
She also said people need to build on the civil rights movement. "We need to continue our move toward equality with gay and lesbian issues. In matters of race, we are still segregated. How do we ignite the hearts of the people again to deal with the issues that still divide us?
"We need to look at the ways of nonviolence because the ways of violence are not working. Is Iraq any safer? I'd like to be proven wrong. We are not being a peacekeeper by going in and bombing.
"When the only tool is your hammer, it's hard not to look at every problem as a nail," Halsey said.