Extremism Expert Eric Ward on Dr. King’s Practice of Non-Violence

According to a poll conducted by the Washington Post, one in three Americans says violence against the government can be justified.  As the nation commemorated the anniversary of the Jan 6th insurrection, the question of whether the nation is in the midst of a civil war is a relevant one.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “it is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”   On Jan. 17th, the nation honored and celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year, the Chicago Defender wanted to know what Dr. King’s vision looks like today. We reached out to community leaders, activists, advocates, and experts in law, politics, healthcare, and education to ask the question, “What does Social Justice Look Like Now?”

The Chicago Defender spoke to Eric Ward, a nationally recognized expert on the relationship between authoritarian movements, hate violence, and preserving inclusive democracy. He is the first American to receive the Civil Courage Prize. Ward is Executive Director of the influential Western States Center, a Senior Fellow with Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward, and Co-Chair for The Proteus Fund. He is one of a small group of leaders of color who have been working to counter organized hate since the 1980s. During his career, Ward traveled by bus across thousands of miles of predominantly white, rural areas to establish hundreds of anti-hate task forces. Among Ward’s concerns are anti-LGBTQ violence, the growing influence of xenophobia on public policy, and antisemitism across the political spectrum.

Eric Ward Chicago Defender
Extremism Expert, Eric Ward

Extremism expert, Eric Ward talks to the Chicago Defender about the lessons learned from Dr. King on the importance of nonviolence in political movements and what Dr. King’s vision looks like today.

Chicago Defender: We just finished acknowledging the one-year anniversary of the January 6 riot/insurrection. Are we in the midst of a Civil War in this country?

Eric Ward: Yes, poll after poll continues to show us that Americans have great anxiety around where we are right now. It is expressing itself through “othering.” To be clear, the entire world is feeling the stress of COVID-19, economic inequality, and the aspiration for a better life, but particularly here in the United States, it has been tied to unconscious racial bias. It is what Dr. King warned us about. This is a threat to democracy, not just to people of color but also to white people as well.

Chicago Defender: I am glad you said that because some people think it does just affect people of color. The reality is this kind of extremism is affecting every area of our lives and how we relate to one another. What does social justice look like in an age of such extremism?

Eric Ward: Yes, it is a great question. Social justice movements understand that these will be challenging times. These tough times call for us to hold to contradiction, pragmatism, and aspiration. What I mean by that is that we must be serious as civil rights leaders at this moment. We cannot lose the vision that communities want a better life. So, the social justice movement looks like a very disciplined set of movements that understand that their role at this moment is to defend the democracy that Black people have struggled to get us to.

That means focusing on some extremely specific tasks. It is our federal government. The very system that is supposed to defend the rights of people has been gutted by four years of the Trump administration. The Trump administration attempted to destroy the federal government, and it took that task seriously. Our country needs leadership and too many of those positions have been vacated by individuals who did not want to participate in Donald Trump’s authoritarian leanings.

Secondly, America must make good on the promise that Black lives, indeed matter. It is time. This is not about denigrating law enforcement. This is about making democracy real in America. That cannot be done in a society that will not accept that there is something morally wrong when African Americans are killed at four or five times the rate of white people, by law enforcement. There must be reform and investment. It is not simply good enough to critique the hashtag, #DefundthePolice. We must put forward a real alternative, there is no way forward until we become very tangible. That is the exceedingly difficult conversation to have in this country, right now. We are incredibly divided.

As we look at Dr. King’s work and the role of social movements at this moment, is it is time to also make sure we do not forget amid this reactionary culture, that people still need housing. They still need good-paying jobs. They still need health care. They want to live in communities that are not devastated by climate change, and other environmental accidents. People still want good schools for their kids and they want to live in safe communities. We must stretch ourselves to try to make real on those promises. And those are the things I think we can do something about right now. We must be aspirational and pragmatic. We must really work at it

Chicago Defender: Is there room for some meeting of the minds when it comes to two camps that are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to social justice and political extremism in this country?

Eric Ward: I remember that Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the President of the United States because of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists marched on the streets. Neo Nazis, attacking residents, chanting anti-semitic phrases like “Jews will not replace us.” We understand that the Biden administration and others at the federal level, are taking this threat seriously. The January six Investigative Committee is an example of Congress taking the violence of the alt-right and white nationalists very seriously.

Seeing the arrest of the head of the Oathkeepers, a paramilitary organization that has connections to January 6, arrested and tried for sedition. That is a significant charge in the United States. We are seeing some real movement, but I would also say that the federal government also must understand that January 6, did not end on January 6th. it is still happening in communities around the country. It is educators, health workers, elected local officials. It is resilient, Black, Latino, Asian American, Muslim, and Jewish communities, who are on the receiving end of hate violence, intimidation, kidnapping attempts, and right-wing violence on the streets. Communities need some relief and some partnership from federal agencies. I believe Americans want to fight for democracy, and their communities but they need real help from the federal government.

Chicago Defender: For this country to move to a more equitable society, money must be poured into communities to address all the underlying things that you just mentioned, education, health care, a living wage, etc. Do you find that we are still fighting the same fight decades later?

Eric Ward: Yes, many of the same challenges exist for Black America. I could quote data all day, but I do not think I have to.  I think people understand that structural inequality continues to be the determinant factor as to the right of opportunity for the Black community. That is the real legacy of racism and the fight of the civil rights movement.

We had to secure the right to fight or to even have the conversation. That is what the fight was in the 1960s for Black America. Before that, we could not even have a conversation. This conversation has continued for 75 years. Here is the truth. America was coming to understand that reality and understanding the benefits of that reality and how it tied us together as a stronger nation. Some people were so upset with that, that they decided to organize a coup and overthrow the United States. That is what the White Nationalist Movement has been attempting to do since the 1970s and with the arrival of Donald Trump, the GOP decided to create an open coalition with the white nationalist movement. There was little response to that, and we are now seeing the result. The only way we effectively respond is to rebuild a large civil rights coalition that is strong enough to manage the violence of the white nationalist movement, and partner, and push the federal government to make real on the promise of civil rights in this country. We must move forward together to outlast authoritarianism.

Chicago Defender: I am thinking of all the images I have seen over the past few years of white nationalism, and the violence it brings. It directly contradicts Dr. King’s legacy and his teachings on nonviolence. What does his legacy teach Americans now? Are we heading towards more political violence?

Eric Ward: Yes, this is why it calls for discipline. We can fully anticipate that there will be many attempts to provoke the Black community into violence. It is a good narrative for a white nationalist movement that seeks to convince white America that the United States is in crisis or in Civil War. It must have an opponent to be able to do that. So, yes, we will see attempts to provoke the Black community, we will see attempts to take advantage of tensions between the Black community and other communities to wedge people against one another.

We must be disciplined and that is a lot to ask of people who have suffered from racism. I think we find that discipline at this moment. Not for ourselves but I think we find it at this moment because 75 years ago our grandparents put themselves in some terrifying situations and suffered some incredible indignity to obtain democracy. They got us here. Our job right now is to continue this forward for the next generation and we can do that.

I think that is ultimately, what we will end up doing. I think at the end of the day, Martin Luther King and his philosophy of nonviolent direct action, advocacy, and mobilization will prove to be the right strategy at this moment as well.



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