Keeping it nonviolent
The events in Ferguson, Missouri have reminded me of events in Cambridge, Maryland forty years ago. I stumbled recently on this piece my Freshman year roommate (Tom Howe) and I published in the Haverford Twopenny Press (an alternative student mimeographed broadsheet) on May 15, 1964. At the time, Cambridge, Maryland was on what was called the Delmarva Peninsula (I didn’t hear “Eastern Shore” until many years later, when it was desegregated and gentrified). George Wallace was the segregationist Governor of Alabama, serving the first of four terms. Delmarva, despite its geographic location, was very much part of the deep South and thoroughly segregated.
Monday, May 22, the civil rights demonstration season opened in Cambridge, Maryland. The newspapers have covered the event with their usual modicum of accuracy. We fear, though, that newspaper accounts of radical demonstrations are being mass-produced in gingerbread-tin minds. In an effort to preserve the uniqueness of this demonstration and to remind students that each protest is a new chapter in the revolution, we present this eyewitness account of the proceedings in Cambridge Monday.
On the way to Pine Street, the main street of the Negro section, the Swarthmore veterans of last summer’s work in Cambridge pointed out the landmarks. On this side of Race Street is the white section. On that side, the Negro section. The division was accented by the groups of National Guardsmenat each corner along Race Street. On Pine Street, we stopped at Elks Hall, the scene of the mass meeting to be held at the same time as Governor Wallace’s rally.
After listening to some of the speeches at the mass meeting, about forty students walked in small groups toward the volunteer fire department hall, where Governor Wallace was to speak at 8:00. Group after group of students was turned back by four men tending the door. The rally, which had been publicized for days as a public gathering, had suddenly become closed to those without invitations. Repeated appeals for admission were met with increasingly surly replies. We were told there was no room, that we had to have invitations, and that we were not wanted. Students from Haverford, Swarthmore, Penn State, the University of Delaware and the University of Georgia stood about thwarted and angry. Demonstrations are forbidden in Cambridge under the modified martial law instituted over nine months ago.
When we returned to Pine Street, the mass meeting had left Elks Hall. Led by Gloria Richardson and Stanley Branche, the crowd of about a thousand changed and sang as it turned toward the hall where Wallace was still speaking. The unified rhythm of such a crowd is irresistible. Your voice joins other voices until there is one voice. Your hands clap until they are not your hands, and you have a thousand hands. We marched, our feelings were in step.
At Race Street, the National Guard drew the line. We were in the middle of the crowd, so we could not see what had happened, but everyone understood. They had stopped the walking, but not the march. The feelings were there, and growing stronger. We sang.
Then the Guard made its first attempt to disband the crowd. A tear gas bomb popped over the heads in front. Everyone took a few frantic steps, and the shout went up, “Everyone down.”
I looked up. For the first time, I saw the Guardsmen. Their bayonets fixed, gas masks on and rifles half-lowered. In those seconds of first seeing the soldiers I learned what newspaper articles and pictures could never say. Only direct experience imparts the flesh and blood, technicolor reality of those men and their bayonets.
We were not granted time to contemplate what we saw. A truck loaded with Guardsmen drove up quickly behind the demonstrators in a second attempt to scatter them. The crowd had been powerful when it was a walking, singing wave. Sitting down, it was a solid wall. The truck met that wall and stopped. Moments later, the perplexed driver backed up as demonstrators banged on the front of the truck.
Brigadier-General George M. Gelston made the next dramatic attempt to disperse the demonstrators. He stood in a jeep and talked into a PA system. He might as well have been in a silent movie. He moved his lips meaninglessly as we sang.
A minute later, the singing stopped. Gloria Richardson, Chairman of the Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, stood where the Brigadier-General had stood before. Talking into the same PA system, she told the demonstrators that they would have to return to Elks Hall because there were too many children in the crowd. The leadership was not going to dey the Nation Guard with civil disobedience if children were going to be hurt.
We returned without the same rhythm of the forward march. Yet this was not a defeat. Our own leader, not the National Guards, had turned us back. Many of the hands that had clapped before were now clasped together. They were still strong hands.
The students left during the meeting in Elks Hall. We heard John Lewis, head of SNCC, and Stanley Branche, head of the Chester Committee for Freedom Now, instruct the demonstrators to leave their children at home and bring their dignity. When we left, it was clear that there would be another demonstration in Cambridge. One prepared for civil disobedience. Four hours later we picked up the Inquirer in Philadelphia. 250 had marched and been tear gassed.
We learned in Cambridge what we could not have learned in the Haverford Library. Outside of the hall where Wallace spoke, we saw the ugliness and the fear of the racist. Marching, we felt what meant by “we shall overcome.” Sitting, we could not be moved. Knowing these realities, we no longer doubt why people march, why people sing, and why people sit in a street to be tear gassed. The direct action protest is an assertion of the dignity and rights of man. Anyone who knows the dignity and rights of man will participate in direct action protest.