I need to make you hip to something because some of you out there think you know what you’re talking about when you call for peace and use images of violence to prove your point. I am doing this out of love.
This information comes from Malcom Gladwell’s book David and Goliath but also his podcast Revisionist History.
May 3, 1963:
“The saintly calm of the young man in the snarling jaws of a German Shepard” taken by Bill Hudson.
This famous picture is NOT WHAT YOU THINK.
So, in 1963, MLK wasn’t getting traction in the South. White people were not coming to the aid of Southern Blacks. They weren’t won over by the peaceful mission. It didn’t move them. The leaders of the movement took the fight to Birmingham because it was where they knew the contrast would be most visible…it was known as the “Johannesburg” of the South. It was also known as “Bombingham” for all the bombs the KKK used.
The leaders knew they couldn’t win using conventional means…democratic means…peaceful protesting means.
Wyatt Walker, MLK’s secret right hand KNEW that white people had to see inflammatory images if they were going to care. They knew white Americans in the 1960s needed black activists to seem passive and “saintly.” White people didn’t know if black people could be peaceful.
There is the folklore of the “trickster” in black cultures that rose from slavery. In American culture, it was Brer Rabbit’s cunning that tricked predators into doing exactly what the small animals wanted. It’s mental judo. This is how you survive in a hostile environment where you are overpowered…you use your wits. You use the oppressors’ unawareness of themselves against them. You trick them into getting you what you need.
The disadvantage of having “nothing left to lose” is a hidden advantage…because you will go to extremes to get what you need when the downside is what you were going to face anyway…more oppression. More death.
Wyatt Walker was incredibly trixy. He intentionally kept a low profile so he could work in the shadows. He’d mislead and misdirect in any way he could. If MLK was an idealist, Walker was a pragmatist. He’d fake marches that walked in circles to mislead the cops to drive them crazy. He didn’t tell MLK about all of his tactics.
He masterminded the optics of civil rights movement’s use of nonviolent techniques to get Bull Connor (Birmingham’s public safety commissioner) to do what they wanted; namely, to imprison black protestors (read: children) in such numbers that not only drew national attention, but also virtually immobilized the city of Birmingham. The plan was called “Project C” for “confrontation.” The point was to show how *ugly* the law was.
The movement was not callous. They knew that the kids were suffering in those jails. They were getting mistreated and beaten. But they had NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE.
The movement couldn’t get enough marchers. So Walker postponed the marches until 5 pm when people were walking home. And suddenly a march of just a dozen people looked like 1400. And that is what the papers reported. White folks couldn’t tell the difference between the protesters and the spectators. So the number swell scared them.
Connor got scared. Especially when the children skipped school, joined in on the movement and marched out of a church willingly into patty wagons to be jailed. On the first day, 600 children were jailed.
So Connor brought in fire fighters with water hoses and dogs. “I want them to see the dogs work,” Connor growled. Walker wanted those hoses turned on. He wanted the cops and firefighters on hair triggers. So he let the rally go on longer than it was supposed to to let them bake in the hot summer sun and get angry.
The law was up against the wall because the jails were full and they had no place to put more arrestees. All they had left were hoses and dogs.
It was the perfect set up for inflammatory optics that could be captured by journalists and broadcast across the country to whites who were indifferent to the movement.
The firefighters turned on their hoses. The children were blasted with water; their bodies flung against walls and doorways, their clothes ripped off.
But more children spilled into the streets from another front at Walker’s orders.
“Bring the dogs,” Connor ordered.
Wyatt taunted the police. “Why don’t you bring out ol’ Tiger out? Why don’t you bring a meaner dog? This one’s not the vicious one!”
A German Shepard lunged at a boy, he leaned in, his arms limp to his sides. A journalist captured the moment. That Saturday, the picture would run in every newspaper in the country.
It sounds reckless. It sounds like shameful manipulation and abuse to use children as tools. Criticism poured out from every corner. No one wanted to see children get hurt. But children–boys, girls, women and men–had been getting hurt for centuries. It just hadn’t been seen by white eyes on the cover of every newspaper, where they couldn’t look away this time. As one of the leaders said, “We got to use what we got.”
The photo was an embarrassment to the American leadership. The world was finally watching. And they were disgusted with the United States.
And the boy in the photo? This “foot soldier” of peace? He wasn’t even one of the protesters. He was just there to watch. But the cops pulled him into the fray.
He was raised to deal with aggressive dogs. He was fighting back with his feet.
And the cop? The cop was holding the dog back.
But that photo got everyone to react the way Walker needed them to.
The moral of this very long story is: what you think you’re seeing isn’t always what’s really going on. Optics can be used to political benefit. Use them wisely.
And this, my non-black and brown friends, is why I don’t want you posting any more photos of peaceful black protesters. You don’t understand what’s really going on when you do it. You’re using actual violence perpetrated upon people with no means to defend themselves as justifications and examples of “good black pacifists.”
If you suggest there are good blacks, then you are suggesting there are bad ones. You don’t have the right to judge the protesters. And certainly not hold up some as paragons of what is acceptable and what you find distasteful. The fact that they have to protest at all to show the danger to their very lives is so offensive, that you need to sit with that and come to terms with your own prejudices, as imperceptible as they seem to you, as you sit comfortably in your ivory towers and act as arbiters of what you will support.