The violent attack on the Capitol two weeks ago and today’s commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has me thinking about another vicious assault on a sacred building in a capitol city in America almost 60 years ago.
On May 21, 1961 in Montgomery, Alabama, a mob of almost 3,000 white supremacists surrounded the historic black First Baptist Church, which was, at the time, filled with around 1,500 black Montgomerians who were meeting to encourage the Freedom Riders who had been viciously beaten the day before (by another mob of a few hundred white people). Both mobs that bloody weekend were led by KKK members who were aligned in their cause with the local government in Montgomery and the state government in Alabama to keep the South racially segregated.
But violent mobs don’t appear out of nowhere. As Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Words create worlds.”
What kind of world do we create with the words we speak? What kind of world do our leaders create? I’m not just talking about the effects of derogatory comments and hate speech, as bad as they are. I’m talking about what happens when lies proliferate and create alternate realities where violence seems to become a legitimate option; where those engaging in evil think they are doing good because they believe they are defending their “way of life.” Because while this is happening today, it is also what happened in the 1960s as white Southerners fought to defend white supremacy.
Much can be said about the Freedom Riders and their courageous journey through the South to implement the 1960 Supreme Court ruling of Boynton v. Virginia, which officially desegregated interstate bussing. Led by Diane Nash in Nashville and John Lewis, who rode most of the way, the black and white Freedom Riders had been facing violence for weeks. They were attacked by a white mob in Anniston, Alabama, as their Greyhound bus was firebombed. They were attacked by another white mob in Birmingham, which was working in collusion with Bull Connor. But it was in Montgomery that the mob attack took on its most demonic aspect.
Raymond Arsenault in Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice tells what happened in Montgomery that weekend. As the Freedom Riders arrived in the capitol city, hundreds of white people descended upon them, reserving the most vicious beatings for the white riders (since they were considered race traitors). Black Rider Fred Leonard said, “It was like those people in the mob were possessed. They couldn’t believe that there was a white man who would help us (speaking of fellow Rider and seminary student, Jim Zwerg).” Rider Lucretia Collins said, “Some men held him while white women clawed his face with their nails. And they held up their little children—children who couldn’t have been more than a couple of years old—to claw his face. I had to turn my head because I just couldn’t watch it.”
The next day, the beaten and bedraggled Freedom Riders made their way to the First Baptist Church across town and joined approximately 1,500 men, women, and children, many of whom were veterans of the Montgomery Bus Boycott five years earlier. The crowd gathered in a traditional mass meeting to encourage the Freedom Riders to continue on in their journey. But what was intended to be an evening of singing, preaching, prayer, and worship, quickly turned into a church under siege by a violent mob who tried to burn it down while the congregation inside sang old hymns like “Love Lifted Me.”
The fact that women and children were inside the church didn’t keep the mob from throwing Molotov cocktails on the roof or from throwing rocks through the stained-glass windows.
Years ago, I met people who were in the church that night who told me these stories. Dr. King came to Montgomery that day for the mass meeting, as did other civil rights leaders. Along with John Lewis, Diane Nash, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and others, the core leadership of the civil rights movement was there. For that one night, the First Baptist Church in Montgomery—which had been founded in 1866 by newly freed slaves—was something like the capitol of the movement.
Alabama governor John Malcolm Patterson refused to take action against the mob. So the Kennedy administration dispatched U.S. Marshals and then later, the National Guard, who arrived around midnight and dispersed the crowd after the harrowing siege. (As the night wore on, Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King contemplated giving themselves up to the mob in an attempt to save those inside. Thank God they did not.)
How does this kind of violence happen in a city full of churches, where the vast majority of people claim to follow Jesus? Because words create worlds.
The words we speak define the way we—and others—see reality. This is why truth is so important. In Genesis, we see that God created the universe by speaking it into being. In a similar way, our own words can create perceptions and perspectives that develop into reality. When those words are lies, a false reality develops that cannot be defended with truth. And without truth as a foundation, those trying to protect a position ultimately built on lies will often resort to violence out of frustration.
That’s what we saw in Montgomery in 1961. And that is where our society seems to be headed today.
Truth matters. Our words matter. What we believe about reality matters. Dr. King understood this and thought it better to build a world rooted in non-violence and peace than to resort to violence out of frustration, even when under attack.
Dr. King had thoughts which steered him through the violence of that night in 1961 and which are useful today:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. . . . Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.