God give me the strength to explain this clearly.
Cardinal O’Boyle was an extraordinary man, but one of his best moments is generally forgotten, and when it is remembered, it is more often than not by people who resented what he did. In August, 50 years ago, he threw away a large portion of his fan club, because he had to get a job done. The civil rights movement was wrestling toward real strength, but could still be undermined and destroyed from within. He saw the threat, confronted it, and prevailed – pretty much alone – and he was reviled for it.
The problem was violence within the civil rights movement. To this day, after the world has seen nonviolence prevail in Gandhi’s India, in the American civil rights movement, in Solidarity’s Poland, in Aquino’s Philippines, in Mandela’s South Africa – still! still! after a list of stunning victories – most people are blissfully ignorant about how this thing works, totally unaware of the fragility of a campaign of nonviolence. A huge campaign of nonviolence can be destroyed from within, by violence within.
Years ago, there was a great movie produced about Gandhi, entitled simply Gandhi. In it, there’s a scene in which the British governor is confronted by civil disobedience all over the country, and asks a subordinate if there has been any violence. The officer goes over a very short list of incidents in which the police had cracked a few heads. No, stupid, the governor responds contemptuously, I’m asking about violence on the Indian side! The officer responds with some embarrassment that there has not been a single incident of violence among Gandhi’s followers. This is a disaster for the British rulers. A little violence amongst the Indians would justify a military response. They didn’t need much violence, but they needed a little, and Gandhi’s campaign had maintained discipline nationwide. One incident of violence on the Indian side would have been a sweet gift to the British rulers, a bitter defeat in India’s drive toward independence.
One generation later, O’Boyle showed that he had absorbed the lessons from India. When the March on Washington was taking shape, there was a broad coalition making things happen, and some of them were ready for riot – or at least ready to threaten riots. One of the speakers for the event was a young hero, a courageous leader, articulate and fiery John Lewis. He had led lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1960, and he had been one of the Freedom Riders in 1961. In 1963, Lewis became the chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Now he was on his way to Washington, and he had earned a spot on the program. But in the speech he had prepared, he seemed to threaten that if nonviolence failed, civil rights activists would move on to violence. (And in fact, in 1969, after King’s assassination, SNCC changed its name, replacing “Nonviolent” with “National.”)
O’Boyle confronted the challenge, and demanded that Lewis tone his words down. O’Boyle had desegregated the Catholic churches of Washington, and he understood how poisonous a threat could be. O’Boyle had the credibility to intervene, and he prevailed. Had he not done so, it is possible that Lewis would have dominated the event. It was possible that Lewis’s threat would have overshadowed King’s dream. If O’Boyle had not made Lewis back off a little, the whole event, King’s speech included, could have disappeared into the sands of history. Sure, historians would remember that there was a march, but no one would remember or celebrate the transformative spirit of that great day.
Years later, Lewis was still annoyed at the arrogance of that white guy who demanded moderation in the middle of a revolution.
But the list of nonviolent campaigns that have failed is far, far longer than the list of campaigns that have succeeded. A campaign of nonviolence cannot be destroyed from outside; you can kill every single participant, and still their blood cries out eloquently from the grave. But from within, it doesn’t take much violence to poison the whole body.
I make this claim based in part on personal experience. I helped to build a campaign of civil disobedience that was larger than King’s, if you measure by arrests. But the campaign I was in turned sour and failed. I helped build the rescue movement, protecting unborn children and their vulnerable mothers by a campaign of nonviolent action. Gandhi said that nonviolence is never a failure: it is measured by fidelity, not results. And even judging by the results, it had measurable success. Not a total failure: we saved many lives. Not a total failure: the story is not over yet. But it was a campaign that involved hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands – and then disappeared.
Many observers and even participants and even leaders would argue that the rescue movement was defeated by FACE, which increased the penalties for rescues dramatically. That’s nonsense. Are Americans congenitally weaker than Indians, Poles, Filipinos, South Africans? We could have continued a campaign in the face of long jail terms. But we could not continue when the violence in our midst scrubbed our claim to nonviolence. In the 1990s, across the country, rescue leaders blurred the difference between violence and nonviolence.
When one well known activist shot and killed an abortionist, pro-lifers tut-tutted; but not one leader had the grit, the guts, the self-sacrificial determination, to demand a solid front movement-wide against the drift into violence. And the rescue movement sank into obscurity.
My hat is off to O’Boyle. He was smart and tough and effective. And when he was tested, he held his ground.
On August 28, remember Cardinal O’Boyle’s work, and celebrate his courage. Rev. Martin Luther King’s speech fired the nation, and King deserves the credit he gets. But remember that we met him astride the shoulders of giants, including Cardinal O’Boyle.