Martin Luther King, Non-violence, and the Anti-Sexist Men's Movement

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By Robert Brannon

It is important to look back and remember the ideological history of today’s anti-sexist men's movement.   Not so much the dates and details, but the sources of our ideals and ideas, and the movements and events that influenced our evolving ideology and strategies.

 

The modern roots of our movement, more than anywhere else, began in the great American social upheaval of the 1960's, the Civil Rights movement, a nation-wide struggle to confront racial segregation, the legacy of human slavery, and entrenched centuries of white racism.  In the early and mid-1960's, the non-violent struggle of principled civil disobedience, by black and white Americans marching together, turned the tide of public opinion, and indeed of history.  It raised the stature of the Civil Rights movement to the central moral symbol of the time.  During these years, as never before, the fight for racial justice came to be seen by most Americans as a struggle between good and evil.  Its visual symbols, in the media and in the eye of the nation, were the images of black ministers kneeling to pray on the steps of the courthouse in Montgomery Alabama, while being attacked by water hoses and police dogs;  of a smirking racist sheriff, Bull Connor, hamming for the TV cameras in Selma.

 

Like thousands of other young Americans of the 1960's, I was swept up, heart and soul, by the Civil Rghts movement.  It changed my life and shaped my view of everything that has followed.  I was privileged as a young white volunteer to meet, if only briefly, many of the great leaders of that struggle; a few are more famous now than then, others largely forgotten today :  Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, James Meredith, James Baldwin, Bob Moses, Bill Higgs, Howard Zinn, Marian Wright, Benjamin Mayes, Tim Jenkins, Morris Milgram, Hazel Brannon Smith... and a man who was an early victim of racist violence, Medgar Evers.  But I viewed from a distance, except for one brief meeting, in Boston in 1964, the great leader of our struggle whom I knew best through the gift of his speeches and writings:  Reverend Martin Luther King.

 

King was not only the most eloquent voice, but the great strategical genius of the Civil Rights movement.  He seemed to be able to find a way to win in the face of unbelievable opposition; always moving from skirmish to skirmish toward his broader goal of establishing a moral confrontation of racism that all Americans could understand.  I have never seen another political tactician, of any color or sex, of his instinct or achievement. 

 

King's great master stroke and symbol, or course, was his unvarying insistence that the movement at all times, in the face of beatings, cattle prods, gun shots, and every form of brutality the mind can imagine, remain non-violent.  These acts of seeming passivity and physical sacrifice were to be the effective attitude-change agents of the movement.     

 

Suggestions have been written about King's inspiration from the Indian anti-colonialist leader Mahatma Ghandi, but in truth some of this was over-drawn.  King’s real personal discovery of the powerful symbolism of non-violence came during  his leadership of the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, and it crystallized for him only gradually.  At one early point, we know, he even went to the sheriff's office to apply for a gun permit.  But a turning point came when his house was bombed, and was soon thereafter surrounded by a huge crowd of angry people, many armed, and ready to exchange fire with police.  Just a spark would set off a bloodbath.  But the serious young Baptist Minister studied the crowd from his front porch, and then said to them:

 

             "Don't get your weapons.  He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.  We are not advocating violence.  I want you to love our enemies.  What we are doing is just, and God is with us."

 

And so, indeed, God seemed to be; for the bold strategy of non-violence would over the coming decade win for the movement the moral higher ground, and produce one of the greatest legislative interventions in U.S. history, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

 

But together with non-violence, Reverend King insisted on a simultaneous public confrontation with racism:  bringing long-accepted evils out into the open, by forcing face-to-face confrontation, and open challenge.  "Conflict,” he said, “was an unfortunate but necessary element in social change."  Another clear hallmark of King’s leadership style was his openness to contributions from women and men, from whites as well as blacks, from radicals and from religious conservatives.  He was a unifier, who sought and led us all to higher common ground.

 

Just five years later he was dead, shot down by a white assassin with a high powered rifle, hired by persons unknown to this day.  And in those final years of his life, and in the confusing aftermath within the Civil Rights movement, there are poignant lessons to remember, for scholars of social change. 

 

Despite the astonishing historic success of King’s confrontational non-violence, there were other male black leaders who found his strategy...  feminine, passive, sissy.  And it is written and known that Dr. King himself was privately derided as "soft and feminine" by some, and at least once was even gay-baited.  When he was removed from our lives by male violence  -  as have been so many that we loved - there emerged in his place (for a period) a group of younger leaders that black feminist writer Michelle Wallace has called the "black  macho" group, who posed for photographs with guns, boots, sunglasses, military clothing, and grim expressions;  and made bellicose statements such as:

 

“Violence is as American as apple pie.”  (H.R. Brown)  “The position of women in SNCC is... prone.”  (S. Carmichael)   “Most American white men are trained to be fags.”  (L. Jones)   “Raping white women is a revolutionary act.”  (E. Cleaver).

 

And buried, it seemed, with the man who had exemplified it, beneath a marble monument in Atlanta, was the deeper wisdom of Martin Luther King's great idea, principled non-violence.  King’s central insight, and his life’s work, might remain buried unless we remember what he said and did, and apply it to own issues today.

 

In fact, confrontational non-violence had proven dramatically effective several times before in human history.  In an amazing (and little-known) non-violent campaign from 1911-1920, the Quaker feminist Alice Paul, who invented picketing the White House and a dozen other provocative tactics, finally won the right of American women to vote.   And soon thereafter, Ghandi would lead millions in non-violent protests that would expel the British from India.  Henry David Thoreau had written of non-violent confrontation when he went to jail to oppose human slavery.

 

But in modern American history, it was Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement that seized the national consciousness, with sit-ins, protests marches, songs, symbolic acts, and non-violent, confrontational civil disobedience.  Many writers have told of how experiences in the Civil Rights movement fueled the early growth and analysis of the feminist women's movement.  The tactics were now familiar, and readily adapted to new targets.

 

Equally affected was the emerging Gay Liberation movement, which in 1969 exploded out of the closet and into the streets, with signs and chants and banners, in the famous Stonewall Rebellion.  In its modern language of GLBT equality, and the overdue demand for the simple human right to dignity and acceptance, the Gay Liberation echoed and extended the strategies and inclusive messages of King’s Civil Rights movement.

 

In 1974, a feminist Women's Studies teacher in Knoxville Tennessee, Dr. Sharon Lord, found that some men, who were questioning the sexist system, were taking her course.  She had them meet in "men's consciousness-raising groups, to talk openly with each other.  She had them act our role-reversal dates, to see how arbitrary sex roles can feel, when they're reversed.  And she encouraged them to organize a national conference, on men and masculinity.   This first M&M Conference in 1975 would spark what became the national anti-sexist men's movement, and continues today as the National Organization For Men Against Sexism.  

 

NOMAS has a broad set of basic principles:  pro-feminist, gay affirmative, anti-racist, and for enhancing men’s lives.   More generally NOMAS is opposed to all imposed inequalities based on race, sex, orientation, age, religion, size, appearance, social class, physical ability, and other differences that so often divide human beings.  We see that all these unjust distinctions and hierarchies flourish under patriarchy, which has as a central feature the un-equal distribution of power.

           

In our choosing not to focus upon all the human differences that we are born with or later acquire, the wisdom of our martyred visionary Martin Luther King has a central importance to NOMAS.  Dr. King wrote and spoke, again and again, of the impossibility, of the wrongness, of judging any person, or of limiting their opportunities, based on some quality that they were born with.  It is wrong, he taught us, to respond to the external categories,  rather than the content of a person’s mind, heart and soul.

 

The Anti-Sexist Men’s Movement has a special need to remember and to honor this great visionary American.  For in the midst of hard and continuing struggles, we must ask, what kind of world do we hope to leave behind, to the generations who will follow us?   We could do no better than repeat the words of an old spiritual, which was a favorite of our fallen champion of non-violence, Martin Luther King: "A world that never has been, yet, and yet, must be; a world where everyone is free."