Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was about to make history. In 1963, Birmingham, Ala., became the center of an experiment in the power of nonviolence. On Good Friday, King was jailed there. From his cell he wrote the «Letter from a Birmingham Jail,» a classic exposition of the power of nonviolence to effect social change.
Mahatma Gandhi said, «Nonviolence, when it becomes active, travels with extraordinary velocity, and then it becomes a miracle.» Those who practice using the tools of nonviolence know what Gandhi means. When one sets out to undertake a nonviolent direct action, the effects of the action are unpredictable. It requires an act of faith. One has to trust the truth of the power of nonviolence.
In Birmingham in 1963, the world saw nonviolent demonstrators lay claim to basic human rights — equality under the law — and watched, stunned, as authorities loosed vicious dogs on nonviolent marchers and blasted children off their feet with fire hoses. Finally, four teenage girls were killed by a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church as they waited after Sunday school for worship to begin.
The legal philosopher John Rawls said nonviolence works when society’s conscience is moved to recognize the justness of the claims of the nonviolent activist. King wrote from his jail cell that nonviolence creates tension in the community that becomes a space for conversation where none existed before.
Today, we might ask if the lessons of fifty years ago mean anything to us.
Last July, when Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed entered the high-security area at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge to bring the message of the prophet Isaiah to the bomb plant — swords into plowshares was their theme — they named their nonviolent civil resistance action the Transform Now Plowshares.
Some might dismiss the Plowshares activists as misguided radicals or crazy idealists. Prosecutors are working to limit any discussion of their motives in court. But elsewhere, conversations have already begun — in pulpits; in hearings in federal court and in Congress; in an editorial comment from the editor of the News Sentinel.
The Plowshares activists have not tried to avoid the consequences of their action. They steadfastly maintain they went to Y-12 to call attention to the production of thermonuclear weapons, an act they call criminal in light of the U.S. obligation taken 40 years ago to «pursue in good faith negotiations leading to complete disarmament at an early date» in the Nonproliferation Treaty. They acknowledge their trespass at Y-12 — a Class A misdemeanor — and assert that everything they did was nonthreatening and symbolic. «We came in hope,» said Rice. What’s more, they felt they had a duty to act.
The Plowshares activists have risked up to 35 years in prison if they are found guilty and given the maximum sentence. It is not too much to ask the rest of us to have a conversation about their claims. If our Constitution says treaties are the supreme law of the land, what is a citizen’s duty?
We can have these conversations — not just in the courtroom, but at the law school, the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, churches, temples and mosques, congressional offices, the pages of the News Sentinel. In the end, we must make room for the power of nonviolence. The alternative is unthinkable.
Ralph Hutchison is coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance and serves on the Greater Knoxville MLK Commemorative Commission.