Dr. Lawrence Ressler has spent nearly four decades as a social work professor and academic administrator in Christian higher education including time at Eastern Mennonite […]
Julian Jackson is a member of Living Water Community Church in Chicago. Photo by Tim Nafziger.
In 1990, I attended the first legal rally of the South African Communist Party. I was
there because Nelson Mandela was speaking (see picture). It was one of his very first speaking engagements after being released from Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for 18 years. Though banned in South Africa until just prior to this rally, the SACP had long worked against apartheid and supported Mandela’s release. Mandela was not a communist, but the fight against apartheid made strange bedfellows.
I and several other naivé American college students were there in South Africa trying to do our bit for the Anti-Apartheid movement. We had connected with a South African group called Koinonia who was doing grassroots racial reconciliation work bringing blacks and whites together in creative ways. We hoped to learn how to apply their methods to our nascent racial reconciliation efforts back at Wheaton (Illinois) College as well as become better advocates for the Anti-Apartheid cause, so we were thrilled to see and hear Mandela in person. And he was amazing.
But the rally was uncomfortable. I didn’t like all of the politics, I didn’t like all of the signs, and there was the threat of violence that hung in the air. I have a picture of a guy holding a makeshift AK-47 aloft a few rows away from me.
The Anti-Apartheid movement was a mishmash of groups: some openly advocated violence, and in the marches we participated in, weapons were not uncommon. Then United States President Ronald Reagan voiced support for the apartheid government in an early speech, and, although he later turned to tepid criticism, it took a congressional override of his veto for the United States to develop an actively Anti-Apartheid stance. At the time, Representative Dick Cheney objected because Mandela was a “terrorist.”
There was lots of debate in the Anti-Apartheid movement itself about methodology and extremism. There were even open clashes between Anti-Apartheid groups. I argued late one night with members of the armed wing of the African National Congress about nonviolence (good grief, was I ever the picture of a naivé college student!). But Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu and numerous other heroes eventually brought around a spectacular nonviolent revolution because they kept their eye on the main thing: abolishing the racist, white nationalist Apartheid government.
In the last few days, I’ve seen a lot of folks buying into Donald Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric. In a statement on August 12 referencing the situation in Charlottesville, Trump said, “ We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” a statement that he doubled down on in an August 14 press conference. “Both sides” language conflates methodology and motivation and obscures the truth of what happened enough to give folks an excuse to sit on their hands.
Some people on social media have posted that the “Left” could learn from Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela and Gandhi about how to protest “right.” And there are lots of lessons to be learned there, but I’m here to tell you that the Anti-Apartheid movement was messy. Members of my parents’ generation who were involved in the Civil Rights movement assure me that it was messy,too. And Dr. King knew it. While he constantly preached and organized nonviolent protests, he also understood that “a riot is the cry of the unheard.”
But many white people wrung their hands and sat on the sidelines then, too, because they bought into the “both sides” narrative.
Critiquing methodologies or even ideologies is good. I have been and still am committed to nonviolence in word and deed (however I might struggle with the latter). But this is not the week for hand wringing. We’re being distracted from the main issue: Making sure a resurgence of aggressive, racist White Nationalism, emboldened by what they see as a sympathetic administration, does not gain purchase. So, whatever we do, when it comes to fighting racism, let’s not opt out because we’re afraid of the company we might keep.
It’s been said before. Ever wonder what you’d do during Apartheid or the Civil Rights Movement? You’re doing it right now.
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