In the 1960s, my father’s heroes and mine included two men. One said, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him. ”
The other said, “I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”
My dad thought Martin Luther King was one of the bravest men alive, but for pursuing justice, Dad preferred El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the former Malcolm X. When Mom taught me Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek, Dad taught me Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code: “The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.” Dad believed that if someone hit you, you hit back. If you couldn’t win, you made losing so hard for your enemy that he would never want to win again.
Dad was a civil rights activist in Florida. When the word came that the Ku Klux Klan planned to burn our home, Dad let people know he had served in World War II and Korea, and anyone who wanted trouble would find it if they came. Dad taught me how to bring the shotgun to him, but I never had to. Maybe the Klan’s threats had been bluster; they did not always follow through. Maybe Dad’s shotgun made the difference.
But when I think of meeting violence with violence, I remember something that happened years later, when my parents had moved to northern Ontario to run a trading post near an Ojibwe reservation, and I had come to work for them. One day, two drunken white men, hunters or fishermen on vacation, drove up to the store. They didn’t have time to get out of their car before Dad told them to come back when they were sober. The men started yelling that they only wanted to buy a few things, but they finally drove up to the road, and I, having run up when the yelling began, thought it was over.
But then their car turned down our second driveway, coming back fast, swerving on the gravel. Dad jumped out of the way as they braked. The men were cussing him for not selling them the little things they wanted, some cigarettes and bread, I think. The passenger began opening his door, saying he was so going to get served, that he had a right to be served.
Dad shoved the car door, telling the men to drive away. The passenger pushed back hard, still swearing, and the driver leaped out of the car and started running around it. Dad yanked the passenger door wide. As the passenger, off-balance, came forward, Dad threw him to the ground.
I was maybe a hundred feet away and running toward them without the slightest idea what I would do. I can’t remember exactly what happened next. Maybe Dad hit the driver. Maybe he shoved him hard, knocking him down. All I know is by the time I was close, the second man was on the ground, and Dad was yelling at them to stay down and yelling for Mom to call the Ontario Provincial Police.
In some part of his mind, Dad had to be flashing back to something that happened to him thirty-some years before in Germany, just after World War II: two Germans jumped him, and Dad got on top of one, holding him by the neck while the other kicked Dad’s head. Every time the one kicked him, Dad slammed the other’s head against the ground. That ended, I think, with soldiers dragging the fighters apart.
So as the driver tried to rise again, Dad shoved him down again, and yelled at me to make sure the passenger stayed down, too.
That’s probably when Dad saw what I saw. The passenger lay on the ground, unable to get up. His legs were twisted, maybe from birth, maybe from something that happened to him long ago. I can’t remember if there was a cane by the passenger seat or crutches.
The driver was saying something about how they didn’t want trouble, they only wanted some groceries. The passenger was begging for his cane or his crutches.
I’ve never asked Dad about that day. I just remember his face as he saw the crippled man, and the story changed in our heads: the men were drunk, and the car was being driven too quickly, but the yelling was only bravado, a drunk’s sense of entitlement. When the driver came around the car, he wasn’t coming to attack Dad. He was coming to help his crippled friend.
Today, I can’t say anyone is wrong to defend themselves. I believe the spectrum of peace includes those who think like Malcolm X, Gene Autry, and my dad. But I know those who think like Martin Luther King, Thoreau, and Gandhi never have to wonder if they went too far.