Robin Washington column: The power of nonviolence — and a brave woman who practiced itWASHINGTON — With 42 speakers over four hours at the March on Washington 50th Anniversary commemoration Wednesday, maybe I missed it. But I don’t think any of them mentioned Antoinette Tuff.
By: Robin Washington, Duluth News Tribune
WASHINGTON — With 42 speakers over four hours at the March on Washington 50th Anniversary commemoration Wednesday, maybe I missed it. But I don’t think any of them mentioned Antoinette Tuff.
Kristin Stoneking said she wanted to.
“I thought about that, and I felt like it was going to take too long to fit in two minutes,” said Stoneking, executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
The pacifist group — where, full disclosure, I worked 20 years ago — helped plant the seeds of the Civil Rights Movement when Jim Farmer and George Houser co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality while on its staff in 1942. So was Bayard Rustin, who later became the organizer of the 1963 march. All were architects of the use of nonviolence to resolve conflict.
In her brief speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Stoneking lauded Rustin, who died in 1987. But the most recent and remarkable example of nonviolence is Tuff, a bookkeeper who was in the office of a Decatur, Ga., elementary school two weeks ago when a heavily armed man burst in.
“He said tell them to back off right now,” Tuff said on the 911 call in which she suddenly found herself the negotiator between police and the distraught gunman, Michael Brandon Hill. “He said he don’t care if he dies.”
To Hill, who already had fired off a round and was reloading his AK-47 in front of her, she can be heard saying, “Don’t feel bad. My husband just left me after 33 years. I got a son that’s multiply disabled. … It’s all going to be well.”
He eventually told her his name, with Tuff responding that Hill was her mother’s maiden name. She also told a little lie — that she remembered him in a band concert at the school and he was “real good” on the drums — but mostly shared how she survived her personal traumas, even after considering suicide last year.
“Look at me now. I’m still working and everything’s OK,” Tuff said. “We all go through something in life. It’s going to be OK.”
And it was, with Tuff finally convincing him to remove his weapons, lie on the floor and surrender, saying: “We’re not going to hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up.”
If you’re wondering what this has to do with the march, it’s the ultimate example of nonviolence that the movement was based on, which despite the prefix “non,” doesn’t mean simply doing nothing.
Part of it is the passive resistance used by protesters who faced fire hoses and police dogs in the South. While creating public outrage through the media, they also evoked moral cognitive dissonance in their attackers.
Nonviolence also means finding ways to reach a person, through words or actions humans cannot help but respond to. A story I know firsthand is of a former state trooper in Massachusetts who saw a car left running on a bridge. He stopped and saw its driver about to jump. Instead of trying to rush the man — too far away to be certain it would work — he shouted, “Hey, buddy. Your car’s on fire!”
The distraction worked, and he and another Samaritan took advantage of the split-second diversion to tackle the man.
Tuff used similar tactics, but also reached deep inside herself to find empathy and love for someone most people would probably write off. Later explaining she was trained by her pastor and inspired by her faith, she embodied the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I listened to the 911 tape over and over,” Stoneking said. “She was incredibly creative, the things she kept coming up to talk to him about. How is she thinking about all this?
“She was trying to make a human connection to him, bringing out his humanity, offering him dignity and offering him love.”
In another story, King, when being tutored on nonviolence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott by the FOR’s Rev. Glenn Smiley, interrupted: “Glenn, don’t bother me with tactics. I want to know if I can apply nonviolence to my heart.”
No one mentioned it Wednesday, but a courageous woman in Georgia showed us how we can.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at email@example.com.