For several decades, I have taught the civil rights movement extensively in my UCLA class on the history of American social protest movements. I detail its effective use of nonviolence to challenge racist practices and white supremacy and to gain high moral visibility in major media outlets throughout the world. To the distress of many of my students, I also note that most civil rights activists, including myself, considered nonviolence merely a useful and moral tactic, but not a comprehensive way of life. Even more troubling, I proclaim my strong agreement with my fellow activists who respect and celebrate those who advocated and practiced self-defense whenever it was considered necessary.
A major new book on the history of the civil rights movement validates this perspective—a perspective ordinarily missing from conventional accounts—and adds a huge dimension to public understanding of the dramatic and continuing struggle against racism in the United States. Despite the widespread belief that everything changed because Dr. Martin Luther King (majestically) preached and acted nonviolently, leading to a “nonracial society” with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the facts, as usual, are both more complex and more dismal.