The long walk for justice
Living Revolution
Article published on 30 March 2012
zuletzt geändert am 20 January 2014
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What do Native Americans, Costa Ricans, Thai villagers, Hispanic students in U.S. colleges, Indian independence activists and Maasai women have in common? They’ve all organized long marches as part of campaigns for justice. Their campaigns’ very different choices about how to use the tactic raises strategic questions for us today. In some campaigns the long march was used primarily to heighten awareness, while in others it was to gain new allies. Sometimes it was used to launch other kinds of direct action. It has also been used at the end of a campaign, to escalate the pressure (just as a general strike is sometimes used). But what conditions make a long walk a truly effective tactic in a campaign, rather than just a chance to get some good exercise?

by George Lakey

For me, that question is personal right now. On April 30, I will begin a 200-mile walk to the Pittsburgh, PA, headquarters of the PNC Bank to challenge its funding of mountaintop removal coal mining. The march is organized by the Philadelphia-based Earth Quaker Action Team as part of its BLAM! campaign: Bank Like Appalachia Matters! For that reason — and with the help of the Global Nonviolent Action Database — I’ve been reviewing the ways in which long marches like this have been used by others, with varying degrees of success.

One of the most recent long walks was taken by four Miami College undocumented students who walked from Florida to the U.S. Capitol in support of the immigration reform proposed in the Dream Act. They called their 2010 march The Trail of Dreams. They not only ended up expanding support for the legislation, but also stimulated five students to add an additional walk of 250 miles from New York to Washington, timed to arrive at the same time as the walkers from Miami. Although the Dream Act was not passed, the action certainly increased the momentum behind it.

In 2009, Tanzanian police set fire to eight Massai villages to evict 3,000 people who were living on traditional land that the government secretly leased to a wealthy businessman from the United Arab Emirates for his hunting and recreation. Widespread protests were stonewalled by the government. Thousands of women in the region then decided to march back to the village area in April 2010; despite arrests and blockades along the way, 1,500 women made it. The women had as allies a network of NGOs, three leaders of which were arrested as well.

Also in 2010, Costa Rican protesters marched from San Jose to Las Crucitas, over 100 miles, to overturn a government decision that permitted open-pit gold mining. The stakes were high: A Canadian subsidiary wanted to mine an estimated $1 billion gold deposit, even though it would remove 600 acres of yellow almond trees — the main food for the endangered green macaw. The march, along with an occupation, hunger strike and other actions, forced a Congressional vote to ban all new open-pit mining projects, and in a court case the protesters won a ban of the Las Crucitas mine.

Most U.S. activists have heard of the 1965 Selma–Montgomery march in Alabama that brought to a peak a national crisis that forced the U.S. federal government to pass a voting-rights law to allow African Americans to vote in the South. The strategy in the previous cases I’ve mentioned was to use the long march as a “wake-up call” to mobilize a broader campaign for their cause. But in the 1965 civil rights movement, the long march was placed strategically at the end of the campaign, to escalate the pressure when allies around the U.S. were already mobilized.

A variety of tactics had already been used before the march: Alabama blacks showing up at voter registration offices even though they wouldn’t be allowed to register; sit-ins and picketing of white-owned businesses; short marches (sometimes even escalating to night marches — a highly dangerous tactic in that context); and other tactics usually involving tense confrontations and thousands of arrests. The young black protester Jimmy Jackson was shot and killed by police, and the white Unitarian-Universalist minister James Reeb was beaten to death.

The rising storm of protest around the U.S. forced the Attorney General in Washington to begin working on a voting-rights bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Dr. King to de-escalate in view of the increasing violence. King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and others in leadership believed that more pressure was needed. They planned a five-day march from Selma, which had been the center-point of the campaign, to Montgomery, the state capital of Alabama — since voting laws are usually decided by the state government.

The march would be extremely dangerous, passing through rural areas “owned” by the white terrorist organization Ku Klux Klan. Three hundred trained people were allowed to go the whole way, with the understanding that thousands could join on a day-by-day basis. Eight thousand people left Selma for Montgomery on March 21. Demonstrators marched through rain, singing and chanting, arriving safely on March 25, although the Ku Klux Klan murdered one more protester as she drove back to Selma.

This successful campaign spotlights two important strategic decisions: one was to place the timing of the walk near the campaign’s end, as a functional alternative to the tactic chosen in some labor-based campaigns: the escalatory general strike. The other was to base the campaign in a location other than where the power holders sit (in Alabama, the state capital, and in the U.S., Washington, D.C.). Because empowerment was a fundamental theme for civil rights organizers, emphasizing the grassroots rather than the seat of official power — and forcing the power holders to deal with the results — was often seen as most effective.

Salt march India

The Selma–Montgomery march was directly influenced by knowledge of the March to the Sea in India led by Gandhi in 1930. In that case, the long walk initiated the entire campaign: the Salt Satyagraha. The 240-mile march began at Gandhi’s ashram and ended at the sea, where the marchers made salt in defiance of the British Empire’s monopoly of salt manufacture. While the country was already well-organized and probably didn’t need the march to mobilize, the leadership wanted drama to kick off the campaign. The drama was provided by suspense: would the British arrest Gandhi or not? It was a classic dilemma demonstration. If the British arrested Gandhi they would make him a martyr and prove correct his claim that their presence was repressive and illegitimate. If they didn’t arrest him, he, the “Great Soul,” would be the first to make salt and defy the British. Either way, the British were in trouble; the campaign continued on a mass scale for two years and paved the way for India’s independence.

In Thailand, a rural campaign to re-open the Pak Mun Dam, whose construction had turned out to be an economic and ecological disaster for the region, used the long walk in the middle of the campaign. In 2000 the Assembly of the Poor first did a series of protests that culminated in seizing the dam and building villages there, preventing dam workers from gaining access. Although they had studies by academics and the World Commission on dams to back them up, they realized that their struggle needed more allies, including among the urban poor, working class and middle class. So 150 representatives of impacted villages participated in a long march of 400 miles to Bangkok to win more allies. Once there, they began a hunger strike, created a mock village outside the seat of government, and did a “die-in” to dramatize their outreach.

Their success in winning allies even among the middle class resulted in the government not only compromising substantially — opening the dam gates four months each year — but also effectively ended new dam construction in the country.

In 1978, 26 Native American activists walked 3,000 miles in what they called the Longest Walk – from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Thousands of people joined them at various points along the way. Symbolically they were reversing the Trail of Tears that marked the history of so many tribes, ejected from their homes by white supremacy and made to walk westward. Practically, they were walking to catalyze a new level of energy among allies, against the threat in the U.S. Congress. Congress was considering a set of 11 bills that would — once again — injure indigenous people in the U.S. The Longest Walk succeeded in blocking the bills.

March Paris-Larzac {JPEG}
The Global Nonviolent Action Database contains more campaigns that used long walks. Many activists have used this method, turning it into a tactic — as militaries use the term — by attaching it to a very specific objective. Campaigners in various situations have placed the long walk in the beginning of a campaign, or the middle or the end, making it serve one or another of a variety of campaign needs. Its strategic flexibility makes it tempting.

A downside is that effectiveness requires a great deal of organization, and many protest groups simply don’t have the infrastructure to carry it off to get what they want. I’ve known long walks that were intended to build allies but didn’t because the walk attracted hyper-individualists with nothing better to do than string along with the walk and alienate the potential allies along the way. Depending on the culture, those who initiate a long walk need to have serious skills in organization and conflict resolution. Depending on the level of danger, they also need skills in training. I was once called in to assist a group whose long walk resulted in several injuries and deaths among the walkers; we worked hard to build the capacity of the organization in nonviolent self-defense. In future walks, no one was killed.

The long walk is not the only method that has advantages and challenges to implement — most do. However, campaigners who rely simply on marches and rallies risk death by boredom, which is one reason why one of the most effective recent campaigns I know of began with a solemn agreement never to hold a march or a rally! Maybe a long walk is for you.

The pilgrimage to Montgomery, then and now

by Ken Butigan | March 22, 2012,

Forty-seven years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. set out with 3,200 civil rights activists from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, to call on the state and the nation to dismantle the structural obstacles to suffrage for African Americans. Two weeks before, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, hundreds of marchers had been brutally attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by Alabama state troopers and local police officers on horses wielding clubs and whips amid a storm of tear gas.

“Bloody Sunday” horrified the nation and motivated a reluctant Lyndon Johnson to provide federalized National Guard protection for a renewed march, after the movement succeeded in getting a court order to allow the demonstrators to proceed. As federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ruled, “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups … and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.” Over the next four days, the marchers walked 50 miles, sleeping at night in fields alongside Jefferson Davis Highway. Over 25,000 people arrived at Alabama’s Capitol building on March 25. Less than five months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

Though this watershed moment took place nearly five decades ago, its power remains undiminished. For years this event has been marked with gatherings, speeches and reenactments of this now-archetypal journey for justice. Nonviolent change is often a journey that is new and uncharted—breaking new ground, setting a new direction; at the same time, its power can also derive from retracing and giving new meaning to a past path for freedom. It can be improvisational and creative. And it can be rooted in acts of remembrance and reenactment. A word that works for both of these realities is “pilgrimage.”

This year, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Hispanic Council and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) joined with countless of other civil rights organizations in the Selma-to-Montgomery march as an opportunity to take a stand against Alabama’s anti-Latino legislation, HB 56, considered the strictest anti-immigrant bill passed by any state in the U.S. The president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Wade Henderson, wrote:

Last week’s 47th commemoration of the Bloody Sunday March of 1965 marks a new phase in the civil rights movement. It represents a turning point for people from all backgrounds, who are joining together, not only to remember our shared past, but also to fight for a shared future. It’s a moment of recognition from all sides that, though our nation has progressed since 1965, we are not yet finished with the struggle to include everyone in the fullness that American life has to offer.

For Henderson, the past and the present are colliding, and just as people took action half a century ago, it is critically important to draw on that same energy and example to continue to struggle: “The state of Alabama … is once again using fear and intimidation as weapons against those without power. This time, the targets are Latinos and the aim is to drive them from their homes and their communities.”

The original Selma-to-Montgomery march was not a choreographed or historically enshrined ritual. It was a radically ad hoc set of strategies that had to be revised over and over again until, improbably, the waters parted. Improvised as it was—playing each new factor by ear—the journey nonetheless was a pilgrimage: “a sacred journey” or “a journey of transformation.”

At the same time, this ongoing pilgrimage deepens the march’s original meaning by using its memory on behalf of unfinished business. Like many geographical nodes of the civil rights itinerary spread across the South and beyond, Selma is a destination that joins past and present in new and creative ways. The route to the capital is even memorialized as the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, a U.S. National Historic Trail.

The anthropologist James Preston speaks of pilgrimage as “spiritual magnetism.” Theologian Richard R. Niebuhr writes that pilgrims “are persons in motion—passing through territories not their own—seeking something we might call completion.” For me, pilgrimage is a journey to the depths of reality, including its woundedness and sacredness, seeking the power and possibility of healing and transformation.

Pilgrimage, in this sense, is not simply a solo act—it is not simply a quest for individual fulfillment. It is a process of engaging the reality of injustice and violence as well as the potential for nonviolent change, and even reconciliation.

This is why I have a keen interest in the many forms of social change that literally involve movement, including Gandhi’s Salt March, the United Farm Workers’s 1966 march to Sacramento, the decades of nonviolent civil disobedience at the Nevada Test Site (which requires a journey into the simultaneously empty and rich Nevada desert), or innumerable marches organized by the peace, environmental, labor and Occupy movements.

Marches, walks and processions are not simply a way to “be visible”; they are symbolic journeys from A (the grinding present) to B (a more just and peaceful world). They are dramatized expeditions to a center of significance. They seek a metamorphosis of conditions. And they deliver the message in person. Such journeys accrue their meaning by taking each step, by sleeping by the side of the road, by gauging the tremendous dangers and possible opportunities of doing so. No doubt the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or its allies could have rented a fleet of buses to make the trip from Selma to Montgomery in about an hour. The meaning of the experience, though, included the totality of the journey. Without this tremendously symbolic and tremendously physical dimension, the exercise may well have been pointless.

In their book The Archetype of Pilgrimage, Jean and Wallace Clift identify many motivations that spur pilgrims to set out: to experience a place of power; to get outside the normal routine of life so something new can happen; to reclaim a lost or abandoned or forgotten part of oneself; to give thanks; to answer an inner call; to seek pardon; to look for a miracle. While the Clifts are mostly drawing on individual-oriented pilgrimages, many of these elements are at work in pilgrimages of social liberation, like the one to Montgomery in 1965—and 2012.

In 1995, on the 30th anniversary of Selma, then-former Governor George Wallace attended the commemoration. The one who had once staked his political career and national reputation on such inflammatory racist rhetoric as “Segregation then, segration now, segregation forever,” held hands with African-Americans and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Colman McCarthy describes the scene:

It was a reaching-out moment of reconciliation, of Wallace’s asking for—and receiving—forgiveness. In a statement read for him—he was too ill to speak—Wallace told those in the crowd who had marched 30 years ago: “Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, welcome to Montgomery. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten.” In gracious and spiritual words, Joseph Lowery, a leader in the original march and now the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, thanked the former separatist “for coming out of your sickness to meet us. You are a different George Wallace today. We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God’s blessing on you.”

In reflecting on this exchange, McCarthy was reminded of what Dr. King had once said:

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. … While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

Dr. King wrote an autobiographical essay entitled “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” As it did for him, the pilgrimage metaphor can capture for us the struggles of the journey. But it can also hold out the possibility of arriving at the spiritual center, what he deemed “the beloved community.” Such a move can, if only for a moment, reward those longings that have propelled us forward, including the desire to experience a transforming kind of power, to discover a new reality, to answer an inner call, to reclaim our true selves, to answer a call, to seek pardon—and even to experience a miracle.

When Martin Luther King gave up his guns

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