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The Price of Pioneering

January 20, 2003

Forty years after Martin Luther King Jr. penned his defense of nonviolence from a Birmingham jail cell, Americans easily might forget the steep political and personal price he and others paid for registering their quiet opposition to legal segregation. Today, on the official anniversary of King's birth, Americans in dozens of cities assume their right to protest a likely U.S. war in Iraq without facing fire hoses or police dogs.

In the decades since black Americans first marched in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Ala., nonviolent demonstrations have become a fixture of American political culture. Health-care workers massed last year, hoping to block county budget cuts. Almost 100 Marin County women, opposed to the current U.S. military buildup, arranged their naked bodies on the beach to spell "peace." And until he was dislodged this month, environmentalist John Quigley spent 71 days in a Santa Clarita oak tree, holding off construction workers now preparing to move the old tree so they can widen a highway.

Nonviolent protest has become part political theater, part publicity stunt, part serious demonstration of public opinion. City officials routinely grant rally organizers permits and cops reroute traffic.

It wasn't always like this. King traveled to Birmingham in 1963 to lead a campaign to end segregation at stores, schools and restaurants. Black men and women calmly sat down at lunch counters and politely asked for a cup of coffee. They faced insults and rotten tomatoes from restaurant managers and then the fury of police who forcibly removed them. Not bound to King's philosophy of nonviolence, Birmingham police in 1963 beat protesters, loosed their German shepherds and turned high-pressure water hoses on crowds before arresting and jailing King.

Stung by criticism from white and black ministers that he had risked lives just so African Americans could eat a sandwich where they chose, which then seemed an almost impossible goal, King tried to explain why he thought it imperative that so many put themselves in harm's way. "We ... present our very bodies," King wrote, "as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the ... community.... Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."

King drew his inspiration from afar -- Socrates and Scripture and India's Mohandas K. Gandhi. But by peacefully resisting Southern police chiefs, school principals, bus drivers and shopkeepers in a distinctively American fashion, King and his supporters rewrote the nation's law and politics. In the early 1970s, college students who burned draft cards and housewives who marched against the Vietnam War with their babies in backpacks followed in King's steps.

Today thousands of Americans are taking to the streets again -- in Washington and San Francisco last Saturday and a week ago in downtown Los Angeles -- hoping to derail President Bush's military showdown with Saddam Hussein. Those marchers most often meet with official silence or veiled attacks on their patriotism instead of nightsticks and tear gas.

King did the hard, dangerous work of making citizen protest an accepted and essential test of a democratic government's decisions.

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