White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery

By Herbert Shapiro | Go to book overview

SEVENTEEN
Robert F. Williams and the Black Muslims

AMONG THOSE directly involved in Montgomery, disagreement about the question of nonviolence could be noticed. King referred to this in Stride toward Freedom: "Occasionally members of the executive board would say to me in private that we needed a more militant approach. They looked upon nonviolence as weak and compromising. Others felt that at least a modicum of violence would convince the white people that the Negroes meant business and were not afraid." A member of his church apparently came to King and suggested the advantage of killing some white people. Such action would be meant to prove that blacks were no longer governed by fear. The killings, King was told, would call forth federal intervention. Other individuals argued the case for self-defense or retaliatory violence, telling King they would not initiate violence but would hit back if attacked.1

Even among some black activists who would not directly challenge the strategy of nonviolence, criticism of the Montgomery strategy could be heard. The nub of this criticism was that King and his associates were not aggressive enough in their tactics, within the framework of nonviolence. James Forman, later executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was to write that at the time he disagreed with the approach of maintaining the boycott while seeking a favorable decision in the courts. According to Forman, he had felt "this was a very negative attitude and that King should call for a creative confrontation with the racist bus companies." Forman judged that "the boycott had become a passive kind of protest and should be turned into a more positive, aggressive action similar to what Gandhi did at the salt mines." At the same time Forman stressed the powerful impact of Montgomery as showing the practical possibility of black unity. Forman admits that judging the Montgomery situation from the distance of Chicago was "a very dangerous thing to do," but beyond that it is very questionable whether the more "militant" tactics he advocated would have strengthened black unity or undermined it.2 Militancy, after all, is not an ab-

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