The Soul of Nonviolence

Randel Osburn was only nineteen when he first began to work full-time for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Twenty years later, he is now 39 and Vice-President of the organization which was founded by his cousin, Martin Luther King, Jr. Osburn was in Toronto a couple of months ago attending the World Dialogue on the Prevention of Nuclear War. During a break between the proceedings, we had an opportunity to talk with Osburn about nonviolence, the civil rights movement, and the relationship between absolute pacifism and the issue of nuclear disarmament. What follows is excerpted from that interview.
We are sorry we cannot present any photos of Reverend Osburn, but they were delayed in the mail and missed our deadline.

By Metta Spencer (Interviewer) | 1985-04-01 12:00:00

CANDIS: Is SCLC basically a black organization?

Osburn: Yes. It was organized in 1957, mainly to deal with discrimination in America. It has grown over the years to be a human rights, as well as civil rights, organization. Even in our very earliest days, we had white staff members whose role was to develop a dialogue between blacks and whites of good will. Blacks met with whites in the local communities --many times under the cover of darkness. The whites were afraid of being identified and we would change the meeting places three or four times so they would be safe. And we tried to politicize those whites so they would carry our message back to the white community. We had to convince them that everything we were doing was out of love. But it is true that we have been a basically black organization.

In the sixties, Dr. King became very much involved in the anti-war movement, as early as 1965 he made a public denouncement against the war in Vietnam--the first black leader of any kind to do that and one of the very few leaders in America to do it, period--black or white. And he continued that movement against the war in Vietnam to the time of his death.... The Nobel peace prize was not just awarded because of his non violent techniques in America, but because of his global ideals.

CANDIS: Is there anything in America today comparable to that nonviolent movement?

Osburn: There are many people who have continued in the Martin Luther King tradition, who have made gains that surpass anything that Martin Luther King imagined in his lifetime, using his techniques and his philosophy. For instance, blacks throughout the South have actually changed the entire fabric of their communities when they weren't even a majority by entering into coalitions with local white Southerners, which we never even really dreamed of.

We have towns in the south where, just on something as basic as Aid to Dependent Children, Social Security and Food Stamps Assistance, poor whites and blacks have more in common than the poor whites have in common with the administrators of those programs. Of course they did not believe that before because they thought their whiteness was their passport. We had to say to them that you cannot eat color. If you're hungry and it's breakfast time, you can bask in white supremacy all you want and you're still going to be hungry. At lunchtime you'll be just as white but twice as hungry. By dinner you'll still be white but you'll be hungrier than you'll be anything else.

CANDIS: Those are political actions ... How do you feel about Jesse Jackson?

Osburn: Another son of the movement who went on to build his own organization. Unfortunately, the media in our country is so polarizing, that the candidacy of Jesse Jackson may have had a more negative effect on race relations in America...

CANDIS: How so?

Osburn: The media played it as a polarizing effect, so much so that when Jesse said "Our time has come" -- for blacks to participate fully in the democratic process and the American dream -- by the time the media had finished with that, it was saying to the whites, "Your time has gone." In Florida, 75,000 blacks registered to vote. And in the same period, 600,000 whites registered. Needless to say, there is no real impact the 75,000 could make. The backlash was on election day.

CANDIS: Within the disarmament movement I don't see very much commitment to nonviolence as a method, and I think that we have things to learn from the nonviolent teachings of great leaders.

Osburn: Yes. The Civil Rights movement perfected the methods of nonviolence and love, not only to liberate us, but to liberate our oppressors. Dr. King always said that hate was as injurious to the hater as to the hated. I believe in nonviolence as a way of life. I do not expect everybody to accept it at that level. Those who accept nonviolence tactically have made the first step in a process of growth. But if 20 years ago I met you in the Civil Rights movement and you employed nonviolence as a technique, and 20 years later you're still saying it's a technique, then you did not learn anything because there's no growth.

When black men who, out of their frustrations with their white bosses, came home and beat their wives during the 60s, we in the Civil Rights movement developed a philosophy that it did not end at the end of a demonstration. It wasn't the white person that we were demonstrating against. It was what that person had embraced. Therefore, we had to say to the black man, when you leave here, just as you did not hit that white man, you don't hit your wife.

By the end of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, (we'd lowered) the weekend rate of blacks cutting each other, fighting, beating their wives and going to jail. What was normally 18 to 25 arrests every weekend at the beginning of the boycott, halfway through had dropped to 2 and 3.

CANDIS: When I talk to people about nonviolence. people say, " Well, look at what happened to Martin Luther King. Look at Gandhi, he got killed. Look at Christ, he got killed. People who preach nonviolence are going to be destroyed. " What do you say to that?

Osburn: Well, first of all, what I say to the believers in violence, who usually raise those questions, is that John Kennedy had more guns protecting him than any man in the history of the United States. He is very much dead. Malcolm X had more guns protecting him than any black man in the history of America. Malcolm is as dead as Martin. Violence begets violence. The only reason that the Gandhis and the Martin Luther Kings die at the hand of violence is that there are not enough believers in nonviolence. So it is not a declaration of failure of nonviolence; it's a declaration of the failure of application of it.

CANDIS: I've heard people say that nonviolence is a good technique that can be used only under very limited circumstances. For example, some say that, while it might work for social change movements, there is no evidence that it might work in international war. Did Dr. King have any thing to say about the application of nonviolence in international relations?

Osburn: Yes, Dr. King probably believed more in the workability of nonviolence in conflict resolution at the international level than at the local and national levels.

CANDIS: Suppose an organized army is invading your country. What do you do about that, nonviolently?

Osburn: Very easy. My answer is not theoretical. When we had 200 unarmed women, children, and men marching in the South next to 2200 armed white racists who had been ordered to do whatever was necessary to put us down, that was an invasion by an army. Right?


Osburn: Very few wars we know of are as disproportionate as that--and we came out alive. Nonviolence challenges violence. White Southerners could not. in all of their venom and hate, just keep beating us when we would not do anything. And we have actual film clips from Birmingham, where you saw them come out beating like this (demonstrates), and they didn't get tired, but within seconds, when we didn't respond violently, they couldn't beat us anymore. And right before our eyes, we could see on the screen the transformation of non violence. Bull Connor, the Police Chief, was ordering his men to beat us. They wouldn't. He said, "I said beat them. Beat them !" They wouldn't. That personifies better than anything you could teach in books in a hundred years that nonviolence can work absolutely. Sure, I believe that nonviolence can work anywhere in the world, as foolish as it seems.

I think that violence is perfected in people's basic thinking. They think of armies for fighting and killing. They never think of armies as having to go in and negotiate their way across the border. Nobody ever accuses soldiers of having brains, right? Nonviolence at its best would re-order priorities, so that soldiers would first have to prove in a conflict that they had used every other means possible to communicate before resorting to violence. We are programmed to do the opposite--to shoot first and ask questions later.

CANDIS: But now, you wouldn't do away with police forces.

Osburn: Oh, of course I would. I believe in absolute disarmament. We would need officers of the law whose purposes would be discipline, but that does not necessarily mean that it requires the use of guns, cause the weapon itself is the actuality of a thought. If we can remove the symbol, eventually the thought can be challenged . As long as we see that gun as the symbol, then to get another gun is a challenge to the symbol. There should be someone walking the streets directing traffic and calling for order, all right. But killing a person because he's stealing something -- that's absolutely insane, because you're putting property over life.

What does that mean in terms of the fabric of the world scene as we see it today? It means that we have become so enslaved to violence that we cannot even think creatively enough to look for other means. I mean, why cannot the race between the superpowers be: Who can wipe out cancer first? Why can't we have the same people where they are now, even, but with a different agenda? That's the challenge that the peace movement would ultimately arrive at if they were really a peace movement. But all they are is a disarmament movement, and that's only the first step.

CANDIS: Many people in the disarmament movement maintain that it was a great step forward to have a police force that had acquired the right to be the only legitimate organization using violence, so that families didn't have to use violence on each other; they could call the police. Following that logic, it would be an even greater step forward to have a world government with a world police force that could legally use violence when necessary to stop breaches of law. That would eliminate the practice of having every nation keeping its own police force--which is equivalent to having each family keep its own guns. So I'm interested in your saying that you would actually do away with police forces today, in this society.

Osburn: Well, I didn't say today. It's a process. But the man who is an authorized enforcement agent, carrying guns, is not going to decide at five o'clock that he's no longer authorized. And it's that mentality that we're dealing with. That's why it's important to always keep our focus on the source--the source being a thought, a spirit. All of these other things are just expression. I mean, if you were robbing a bank, the system as we know it would shoot you in the robbery and kill you. But there are harder punishments than that. For example, suppose I allowed you to complete the robbery and took all of the money and gave it to somebody and then made you work for that bank for the rest of your life for nothing.

Once we are forced to challenge our basic thinking as to violence and the worth of human life, an attitudinal change begins. Nonviolence is inclusive, violence is exclusive; it eliminates all the other possibilities.

I for instance don't allow weapons around me. There are times when I have to travel with bodyguards but I don't allow them to carry weapons. People say, "But what good are they?" And in a sense, their mere presence in a violent society implies that they have a weapon. People just assume that they do, but I don't allow anybody to carry weapons to protect me.

CANDIS: When have you needed bodyguards?

Osburn: Oh all over. All over.

CANDIS: Have you been attacked?

Osburn: I carry a bullet. I was shot. And that is very real.

CANDIS: I know. And you were jailed 69 times?

Osburn: Sixty-eight times.

CANDIS: But nowadays. I would have thought that we're past that.

Osburn: No. We're not. In fact, I led a boycott in the States against a company that was associated with the underworld, and nobody challenges their regime and gets away with it as a general rule. And they sent out for me and I suppose the only reason I'm alive is because of God intervening. They kept trying to figure out who and what was behind me. They had somebody on me for 24 days and they knew everywhere I went, including taps on my telephone. And when they confronted me with it, I laughed and kept walking. Eventually we came up with an agreement and I was given 2 days to call the boycott off. They literally came to a church where I was speaking and sent a woman in with a pistol, who walked through a whole crowd of people and got within 8 feet of me before she pulled the gun out.

CANDIS: What did you say at that point?

Osburn: I never stopped talking. I was looking right at the gun but it did not register. I did not acknowledge that it was there. And the people around her took the gun and carried her out and I didn't even press charges. It was at that point that they decided I was crazy. The next day there were no more threats. They stopped following me. Everything happened after that night.

CANDIS: Were you able to maintain that during those 68 times when you were in jail? Was there ever a time when you lost your cool?

Osburn: Yes, of course. I was not always nonviolent. Very early in the Birmingham movement, a bunch of us were doing a demonstration and I had just been in training learning judo and karate and so that was my big day. So as they arrested other people they went limp and were arrested and went on to jail. And hours later they were released. So I stretched out 5 policemen. And when it was all over I ended up in the hospital. Three hundred or so stitches. Was chained to my hospital bed, and got out of the hospital 12 days later and was transferred to jail where I had to stay for 10 days. And all of this because, you know, I'm Superman! (Laughs).And so I started to assess the price of "self defence," as I called it. It just didn't make a lot of sense in that kind of setting.

CANDIS: What room did they have for you in the movement if you were going to be violent?

Osburn: Well, generally there was no place in a nonviolent demonstration for a person who did not pledge. You know, we had an oath to take for nonviolence. My thing was, if I was attacked, I was just going to defend myself. I did not have a weapon. All our pledges centered around weaponry. But after I went through all the money, injury and everything, I just made a very elementary deduction that violence did not pay.

CANDIS: You're a nephew of Martin Luther King?

Osburn: First cousin.

CANDIS: Were you around him? l'm not sure about the process he went through to get to nonviolence.

Osburn: Oh, he was very violent.

CANDIS: Early in his life?

Osburn: Yes, yes. Well, let's put it this way: He was as violent as any American. In Montgomery during the bus boycott he had a pistol at the house, and he really believed that if anybody came to that door in the middle of the night, he'd protect his wife and daughter by shooting them. And it was only when the house was bombed that he began to re-examine that, and see that you really can't protect yourself. I mean, you can have an arsenal in your living room and if somebody threw a bomb in your house, at best it might make your house blow up faster. It was then that he said there had to be some better way than a pistol--something that could give one more peace of mind than something external that cannot be guaranteed to work in all cases. And that's where his spiritual development came into full bloom. Because he had kept his religion over there and his politics over here. And aside from organizing through the black church, he had really not applied a spiritual dimension to the movement.

CANDIS: Did he read Gandhi much?

Osburn: Oh yes. He was obsessed with Gandhi. Literally. The Greatest scholar on Gandhi.

CANDIS: What would you tell people to read that King wrote?

Osburn: Well, naturally I would say to read all of his works. He didn't have that many books. Where Do We Go From Here?, his last book, is the one that I recommend for the summary of where we are now, because we really haven't moved that far beyond where he left. But to really understand nonviolence, one would need to go back through them all.

CANDIS: You say that Mrs. King now heads the Nonviolence Center for Social Change. Does it give trainings in nonviolent action?

Osburn: Yes. Until he became Dean at Alabama State, Bernard La Fayette was responsible for training at the King Center.

CANDIS: He gave us a training at Dubrovnik.

Osburn: Is that right!

CANDIS: Yes. He talked about being beaten up by twelve white cab drivers one time and how he'd pick himself up, dust off his coat, and keep looking benign every time until they finally gave up beating him.

Osburn: That's right. That's a real story. Now Bernard represents Martin Luther King's impact. His whole life, even though he was an adult then, was completely redirected. That's what's so amazing. Everybody who was directly involved with the Martin Luther King movement was permanently changed as a result. Nobody went back to where they were before.

Peace Magazine April 1985

Peace Magazine April 1985, page 11. Some rights reserved.

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