John "Hunter Bear" Gray and Tougaloo College students being attacked during a lunch counter protest in Jackson, Miss., demonstrate the quiet courage of nonviolence. (Courtesy photo)
John "Hunter Bear" Gray and Tougaloo College students being attacked during a lunch counter protest in Jackson, Miss., demonstrate the quiet courage of nonviolence. (Courtesy photo)

With the Jan. 7 passing of John “Hunter Bear” Gray, millions of followers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance paid tribute to one of its most resolute examples ever captured in print. Gray is also known by his birth name John Salter Jr. and worked closely with Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. The Tougaloo College professor had joined a handful of his students, attacked by an angry white mob challenging segregation at a local lunch counter. Gray immediately raised their ire.

“They dumped slop on us. I was burned with cigarettes, hit and had pepper thrown in my eyes. The women weren’t struck, but had their hair pulled. All the while the air was filled with obscenities, the N-word – it was a lavish display of unbridled hatred. I have virtually never felt fear, I seem to be wired that way. So, while I remember thinking we could get shot, and it was likely I could be a prime candidate, I wasn’t particularly worried,” Gray told The Guardian newspaper in 2015. “They cut my face with sharp brass knuckles; someone cut the back of my head with the jagged edge of a broken sugar container. There was a good deal of blood.”

Gray’s quiet courage, like that of Joan Mulholland, John Lewis, Anne Moody, and millions of others, who chose nonviolence or had no weapons with which to fight, rested in the conviction that nonviolence remains the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice.

Of this philosophy, Dr. King noted, “[Nonviolent resistance] has a way of disarming the opponent, exposing his moral defenses. It weakens his morale, and at the same time it works on his conscience, and he just doesn’t know how to handle it.”

In the face of increased racial animus, a new generation of Americans worry that the violence and aggressive racial intolerance of the past, has resurfaced. Some young people I spoke with pointed to agitated whites yelling, grabbing, hitting, spitting at, or taunting African Americans or others of racially diverse groups and — unlike the philosophy of nonviolent resistance — facing the wrath of their victims. Others cited the mocking of a Native American elder by a Catholic school teen visiting the District for a pro-life rally, the viral video showing an eagerness among his classmates to join in, rather than challenge their friend.

Can King’s quiet courage, as exhibited by members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) find renewed vigor in today’s racial climate? Where circumstances dictate self-defense, violence may be necessary. For those who choose nonviolence, the civil rights movement implored entire courses on and labs to teach students and workers how to utilize it.

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, let us remember that he steadfastly held that nonviolence was his prescribed policy.

“It is possible to struggle against an evil, unjust system, with all your might and with all your heart, and even hate that unjust system, but yet you maintain an attitude of active goodwill and understanding and even love for the perpetrators of that evil system. And this is the most misunderstood aspect of nonviolence. And this is where those who don’t want to follow the nonviolent method say a lot of bad things to those of us who talk about love. But I still go on and believe in it, because I am still convinced that it is love that makes the world go around, and somehow this kind of love can be a powerful force for social change.”

We use this supplement to examine Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy and how righteousness, kindness, and courage informs that philosophy then and now.

Read, Learn, Grow.

Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian and journalist who serves as the Informer's Special Editions Editor. Dr. Sherman is the author of In Search of Purity: Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes...

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