Standing Up for the Extraordinary, Ordinary People Who Didn't Fight Back

Illustration for article titled Standing Up for the Extraordinary, Ordinary People Who Didn't Fight Back

I haven't yet read Condoleezza Rice's memoir about her parents, Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family. But already I'm annoyed. I'll admit that I'm discomfited by all of the figures from the Bush administration who have managed to emerge unrepentant, their records unexamined by independent prosecutors, some hawking books and all displaying a kind of smug sense of their own invincibility.


Mistaking President Obama's pledge to "look forward and not backward" as absolution rather than pragmatic calculation, these characters continue to boldly show up on news programs, in lecture halls and academic institutions, despite having treated the rule of law as just an expendable annoyance during the Bush years.

The sheer number of characters in this impenitent rogues' gallery from the Bush administration is staggering: Vice President Dick Cheney, John Yoo (deputy assistant attorney general and author of the "torture memos"), Douglas Feith (undersecretary of defense for policy), Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense) and Andrew Card (chief of staff) are just a few. And the fun will really begin later this year when former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush himself come out with their books. (Of course, poor Alberto Gonzales has indicated his desire to write a book but hasn't been able to stir up interest among publishers.)

But it's not Rice's role as national security adviser during the heyday of Bush WMD fabrications and torture policy that rankles these days. Instead it's her evident pleasure in telling a story that she says explains why her father — a schoolteacher in Birmingham, Ala., during the most volatile days of the civil rights movement — didn't march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It's a story Rice tells with a certain relish, in every interview, whether on Fox News or Jon Stewart. She can remember it like it was yesterday, Rice says, hearing her father explain that he wouldn't march because he knew that if police officers responded violently toward him, he would fight back — "and then his daughter would be an orphan." Rice tells the story with pride. Her father was "a big man," she says, and did not believe that nonviolence was the appropriate response to violence. In fact, her father "had some questions about the nonviolent part" of the movement, Rice says. Interviewers have responded in lockstep to this story with a kind of awed admiration for Condi's badass dad.

But there's something unsettling in Rice's telling of this story. She leads with this story for obvious reasons. "Did your parents march with Dr. King?" is a question Rice, a Birmingham native, must have grown accustomed to hearing by now. As she explains, and we have no reason to doubt, her parents, like many others not actively involved in protests, "did their part." They refused to provide school authorities with the names of students who did march, for example.

But Rice's story about her father's self-described unsuitability for nonviolent protest carries with it a kind of unpleasant undertone. Accompanied by her smug laugh, it's as though Rice suggests that her dad was a real man. He would have hit back. It's as though her father — not the nonviolent protesters who ultimately broke the back of segregation in the South — represented the strength of black manhood in the South during that period.


In fact, the ability to meet violence with nonviolence required extensive training and discipline on the part of civil rights protesters. Nonviolence was a philosophy, not just a reaction. Meeting opposition with nonviolence allowed protesters to release the satyagraha, or "truth force," of the movement. The spirit of truth, they came to believe, would ultimately prove more powerful than any billy club or police dog. Those who practiced nonviolence — from King to the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — were required to suppress their natural responses to the threat of violence. 

To sit at lunch counters while whites taunted you or poured salt on your head was not an act of passivity or weakness. It was an act of tremendous courage, requiring spiritual depth, maturity and military-like discipline. The spiritual power of those men and women was so great that their sacrifice — their willingness to "crucify their flesh," as the Baptist preachers would say — moved millions of people who watched it or saw photos of it or even heard about it to reach into their own souls and acknowledge the injustice of segregation. The men who endured the difficulties of nonviolent protest, those who chose not to hit back, were giants — the greatest of men.


No doubt Rice's parents "did their part." Of course, we all want to remember our parents as giants. It's not surprising that Rice would attribute her father's decision not to participate in civil rights protests as evidence of his strength rather than weakness. But the frequency and relish with which Rice tells this story — in fact, it seems to have become her go-to "book interview story" — leaves the unsettling feeling that Rice elevates her father at the expense of those who committed themselves to the discipline of nonviolent civil rights protests. 

I suppose that these days, it's fashionable to dismiss or denigrate the principle of nonviolence and the power of "turning the other cheek." But for about 15 years in the middle of the 20th century, a cadre of black and white activists committed themselves to the highest form of principled resistance to injustice. They gambled that this extraordinary movement could change the most violent, recalcitrant, inhumane political, social and economic system of control in 20th-century America. And they were right.


Segregation would not have fallen simply because of the presence of French-speaking, black classical pianists. It had to be confronted and shamed. Over and over again. It required the blood of martyrs like Jimmie Lee Jackson and Henry Dee and Vernon Dahmer and James Chaney — all strong black men who confronted Southern racism head-on and paid with their lives. And the participation and martyrdom of whites like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Viola Liuzzo.

We should remember and we should be grateful that the South was filled with men and women who had the courage to step out of themselves and put their lives on the line to help bring about the creation of a world in which a black woman could someday become national security adviser and secretary of state of the United States. 


Sherrilyn A. Ifill, who teaches at the University of Maryland, writes about the law for The Root.