Pacifism does not mean peace

Police attack marchers, Selma Ala, March 7, 1965This week marks the 42nd anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday march, where State Troopers and Sheriffs brutally attacked a crowd of peaceful marchers in the full glare of the national media. For the first time, really, the brutality of the segregationist movement was put on display for the country on March 7, 1965, and in stark contrast, the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers was also laid bare for the country and world to see. That Bloody Sunday march, 42 years ago, is an ideal example of one of the most misunderstood aspects of pacifism, the notion that pacifists are passive, peaceful people who avoid confrontation, that they are somehow more cowardly than people who confront brutality with brutality. Bloody Sunday in Selma puts the lie to that notion, in luxurious black and white imagery.

You simply cannot see the Selma marchers as passive people, as people unwilling to challenge those who oppose them. On the contrary, they were ON that road precisely because they were standing opposed to oppression, bigotry, and dehumanizing brutality. They were on that road to protest the shooting of a boy trying to protect his Grandmother from being intimidated while she tried to vote. They were on that road to show the hateful bigots that they had simply had enough, and would stand for no more. But nothing they did that day was passive, nothing they did that day was cowardly.

What is so striking, for me, about the Selma footage is how clear the cowardice in the situation truly is, as we watch it. What could possibly be more cowardly than men, with the force of authority and weapons, beating down unarmed people? What could be braver than confronting such brutality with the force of your convictions instead of your fists? It is surely the most non-passive of acts, the bravest of acts, to march into a phalanx of angry men with weapons, simply to assert your right to be alive and in that spot.

Pacifism is NOT a peaceful, passive philosophy. It is an active, confrontational philosophy that seeks active war with whatever it is employed against. To say Gandhi was passive about the British in India is laughable, and even more laughable to suggest he was peaceful or cowardly … he was actively confrontational. To say the marchers in Selma weren’t willing to “fight for their rights” is to completely misunderstand why they were there, in that place, on that day in 1965 … they were there specifically to fight for their rights. No, pacifism does not mean peace … pacifism is an active strategy that seeks direct confrontation with the ideas it opposes. The ONLY difference between that, and what we consider modern warfare, is the weapons employed by each side.

That’s why I like to use Bloody Sunday in Selma as an example of the idea that pacifism is about war, not peace. Those people marching from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965 weren’t ambushed by those policemen … that the day turned into brutal display was, sadly, a surprise to very few. The marchers set out that Sunday morning knowing they were marching into battle … like all soldiers, they had no idea how the combat would unfold when they actually engaged the enemy, but they had no doubt they were marching into battle. They knew some of their brothers and sisters might be injured or killed, and each one knew that his or her part in the battle would take courage, strength, and will-power to be triumphant. To look at what they did that day, and still argue that pacifists are cowardly people, unwilling to fight for what they believe in, completely mystifies me … I frankly don’t understand how you can look at any footage from Selma’s Bloody Sunday and not see the active, confrontational nature of the marchers’ pacifism.

Selma is a perfect example of how pacifism is wielded as a battlefield strategy, perfect in part because we have such amazing footage to illustrate the event. And for me, its the event that really puts the lie to the notion that pacifists are passive, or interested in “peace at any price.” If the people who marched on Bloody Sunday in 1965 had been interested in “Peace at any price” they would have stayed home that day … Instead, they choose to willingly march into a phalanx of heavily armed people intent on doing them harm. That’s hardly a peaceful way to spend a Sunday.

The above image is borrowed from, and is stock news footage used to illustrate a historic event


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