In the summer of 1967, as a young VISTA volunteer, I was one of the few white women working in an all-black neighborhood in Washington, DC, when the race riots broke out there. Buildings were being burned and stores looted. Public transportation had stopped, and the police were nowhere to be seen. In that hardest-hit area of the nation’s capital, it was dangerous for any white person to be on the streets. My white co-worker and I were able to escape only because a black community organizer arranged an escort for us so we could safely walk the two miles through the smoke and debris back to our apartments in another section of the city.
I didn’t condone the violence. But I began to understand why African Americans were so angry that they would even destroy their own neighborhoods. And in 1968, after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, I joined a large civil rights demonstration in Washington, a peaceful gathering of thousands of people that stretched from the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial.
In America in 1969, and a year later in Paris, France, I joined the protests against the Vietnam War—demonstrations, large and small, that were also peaceful, except for a few troublemakers on the fringes who smashed windows and spray-painted graffiti. But the actions of those few bad actors were enough to cause large numbers of police to attack all of us with tear gas and flailing batons.
Like the people who label today’s protesters “thugs” and “scum,” many people back then called us “violent anarchists,” “left-wing radicals,” or just “dope-smoking hippies.” I was none of those. But someone reading this might jump to the conclusion that I’m anti-military because I joined those anti-war protests half a century ago—just like someone might think that people marching today in protest against police brutality are necessarily anti-police.
It’s not that simple. In opposing the Vietnam War, I was protesting against our government’s policies, not the soldiers who had been drafted to carry them out. Before becoming a protester, I had worked in the Pentagon. My future husband served in the US Army. And later I spent 18 years of my teaching career as a professor with education programs for the US military stationed around the world.
I joined all those demonstrations for civil rights and against the war because I believed that righting wrongs would make America a better country. And I valued the First Amendment of our Constitution, which gives me the right to assemble with other people in publicly voicing our opposition to those government policies and social inequities—just as people who believe differently have every right to do that, too.
On June 1, in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, police and unidentified law-enforcement units, some on horseback, attacked peaceful protesters in front of the White House, using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to clear the way for President Trump to take a photograph.
In November 1989, I happened to be in Prague, Czechoslovakia, shortly after the uprising that became known as the “Velvet Revolution” began there. A brutal police attack on non-violent demonstrators in Prague had led to increasingly larger numbers of people gathering in Wenceslas Square every day to protest the Communist government that had held Czechoslovakia in an iron grip for 40 years. The nation was facing a moral reckoning back then, as America does today.
In a country without a free press, no one trusted the news media—TV, radio, newspapers—because they were all controlled by the state. So in that era before cell phones and social media, the primary sources of uncensored news about the uprising were handmade posters, mimeographed flyers, and megaphones.
Wall posters proclaimed: “Dialogue. Democracy. Freedom. No Violence.” “Don’t Break the Windows.” “End One-Party Rule.” A sign in the window of a restaurant said: “Fish Rot from the Head.” A notice on the door of a theater announced: “All the theaters are closed. The only one still open is the Parliament.”
Like today, the first demonstrators were young people, mostly students. But every day the crowds grew in size as the resistance spread to all ages and groups in society, from young fathers with their children in tow to workers in overalls and old ladies with shopping bags. Everyone wore something red, white, and blue, the colors of the country’s flag. People flashed the “V-for-victory” sign, at first surreptitiously, later openly.
On the day that I joined nearly 400,000 people demonstrating in Wenceslas Square, the largest demonstration to date in Czech history, back home in America, people were celebrating Thanksgiving. But in Czechoslovakia the nation’s military was ready to move against the protesters, and militia reinforcements had been trucked into Prague from other cities. Big gray vans full of men in riot gear with gas masks were parked in the side streets leading into Wenceslas Square, waiting for the order to advance.
The crowd continued to grow. People passed around strips of paper saying, “NO VIOLENCE” and instructing everyone not to panic if the police attacked: just to sit down quietly in the square (like protesters taking the knee today). Suddenly a flare was launched off the top of a building nearby, and everyone thought it was the signal for the police to attack. Four hundred thousand voices went silent—an eerie moment in such a huge public place. But the police held back. And then a woman with a beautiful soprano voice began to sing “We Shall Overcome” in Czech. Thousands of other voices soon joined in. People refused to be silenced any longer.
The next day the entire ruling elite of the Communist Party resigned, and four days later—after even larger demonstrations in Prague—the Communists lost control of the government. But mass public demonstrations were only the beginning. They were followed by the harder work of political action to bring about necessary reforms in the government. And by the end of 1989, Czechoslovakia had become a democratic country again, after four decades of repressive rule.
In the struggle for freedom and justice, peaceable protest and civil disobedience can indeed overcome the powerful forces arrayed against them. We can learn from history—if we’re willing to listen.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in a speech to church leaders more than half a century ago, “If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Isn’t it time that we finally refused to be dragged down those dark and shameful corridors any longer?