What Iran Can Learn from the Civil Rights Movement


I was struck when, in commenting on the unrest in Iran, Barack Obama invoked Martin Luther King, repeating the borrowed line that King made famous: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  Because already, as I watched the demonstrations in Iran, my mind took me back to the days of King and the students of about the same age as many of those in the streets in Tehran. And when I saw the body of murdered young Neda Agha-Soltan, I thought of those like the young John Lewis (now Congressman) who left behind their wills as they embarked on the first Freedom Ride through the Deep South.  As they said then and at other times, they were prepared to die for freedom.

Moreover, as I looked at that heart wrenching picture of Neda Agha-Soltan, I thought of the countless numbers of women who were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement—women like Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Smith and Brenda Travis, a 16 year old girl in McComb, Mississippi, expelled from school and sent to prison for sitting in at the all-white library, all of whom often had to take a backseat to the men when it came to the Movement’s public face. But I was pleased as I listened to and watched news reports of how in death Agha-Soltan was becoming a symbol of the anti-government movement, just as women have been in the vanguard of that struggle.


Like the deaths of so many civil rights activists, hers may give courage to others and inspire them to act on their beliefs.  But as I reflected on the similarities, I also hope the Iranian demonstrators would look at the lessons of the US Civil Rights Movement, and what gave it its moral authority and its victories.  It was the iron-clad commitment to walk in Mahatma Ghandi’s shoes, using non-violence as its operating principle.  Even as John Lewis was struck more times than I can remember in more places than I can remember, with more instruments than I can remember—although I do remember the soft drink crate that struck him hard  on the head  at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965 when hundreds marched to protest the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, another civil rights victim, and even as a white bully tried to gouge out the eyeball of  white SNCC volunteer Bob Zellner   or as Bob Moses was beaten so badly in Amite County,  Mississippi that it took nine stitches to sew up his head—none fought back, such was their deep commitment to non-violence, which  gave the movement an  exemplary moral authority.  But the most successful of the sit-ins and other forms of non–violent protests were those that were organized in advance, as Diane Nash, one of the leaders of the Nashville movement, recalled in "Voices of Freedom":

"We would practice things such as how to protect your head from a beating and how to protect each other,” Nash said.  “If one person was taking a severe beating, we would practice other people putting their bodies in between that person and the violence, so that the violence could be more distributed and hopefully no one would get seriously injured. We would practice not striking back if someone struck us.”

And finally,  the other lesson that emerges from our Civil Rights Movement, is contained in the song that lifted our spirits and prepared us to fight  and maybe even die still another day:  “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me roun’.”

Tehran is not McComb, but moral authority over evil knows no boundaries.