23 August 2004

Protest: "It's what we know how to do."

V.S. Naipaul interviews a white liberal activist southern woman in Atlanta in 1987.
"Do you think protest is being so formalized that even black people are beginning to lose contact with what they feel, and often say what they think is expected of them?"

"I think that rote and rhetoric have replaced outrage. The first thing that happened after the very real shock about the business in Forsyth County--the shock that it, the Southern violence, wasn't dead--what swung into action then was the perfect march. And we knew just exactly how to do it. As though some cosmic march chairman pulled all the switches--and, goodness, in a week we had the perfect march.

"We had the right component of public-safety awareness, the right component of media awareness. The right crowd makeup, a nice balance of young blacks and old battle-scarred lions; and we had the right component of white liberals. You wouldn't have found an ex-president marching in that first civil-rights march. You know, the organization! The buses appeared, just like that. That's Hosea [Williams]. Boy, can he stage a civil disobedience now!"

Wasn't it good, though, that protest in the United States could be ritualized like this?

"I don't want to sound pejorative. How else would I have it? I am so thankful no lives were lost in Forsyth County, no harm was done. What I miss are the howls of pure outrage that greeted the murder of the three civil-rights workers in Mississippi. In the 1960s. But it was the spilled blood that called out the outrage. And we must not have the blood."

But there was this to the formalization of protest: there was an orthodoxy of thought about race and rights. Perhaps people would be censoring themselves sometimes, to appear to be saying the right thing.

Anne Siddons said, "I guess that happens in all revolutions. They don't end. They just pass into caricature over the years. And therefore they lose their credibility. The civil-rights movement will lose its energy and peter out into a series of sporadic brush fires, as other things come up. The civil-rights movement began to die as the peace movement and the women's movement came to life in the sixties. As I said, Americans protest anything. We are protesters. But protest made the country. It's what we know how to do."
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 44-45.

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