Nonviolence: Then and Now

By Guest Contributor

 There is a perception amongst many people that the Civil Rights Movement was a wholly nonviolent effort. While there is indeed a rich history of nonviolence within the movement, largely attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., there is also legacy of self-determination and armed resistance. This legacy is often forgotten, but must be acknowledged in order to understand the state of racial affairs in the United States today. This article will provide a brief history of both the non-violence and Black Power movements within the larger Civil Rights Movement, before shifting to a discussion of the importance of both of these strategies in current affairs.

Nonviolence is a method of bringing about social or political change through peaceful means. In the U.S., Pacifist Quakers, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as those involved in the Civil Rights Movement have all implemented nonviolent tactics to accomplish their various goals. Morality is the foundation of nonviolence, as nonviolent protestors believe that their moral strength gives them physical strength to resist their oppressors.

According to Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolence provides a way to persons fight immoral systems without becoming immoral themselves. However, people and movements have historically struggled with nonviolence, as it lacks visible muscle. Despite this, the rise in support for integration in the during the Civil Rights Movement shows that nonviolence can nonetheless be effective.

As the Civil Rights Movement gained popularity in the early twentieth century, many leaders adopted nonviolence as their main weapon against discrimination. In 1941, James Farmer founded the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in Chicago with the intention of promoting better race relations and ending injustices. This group staged non-violent protests such as a sit-in in a Chicago coffee shop in 1943. CORE remained one of the first organized groups to practice nonviolence, and the strategy quickly expanded. In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King, Jr. advertised nonviolence to large audiences, promoting its peaceful yet effective methods. In 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) continued the mission of the SCLC and CORE by founding its organization on the practice of nonviolence itself. Nonviolence quickly became a dominating feature of the Civil Rights Movement, guiding African-Americans on their fight for racial equality.

However, despite the popular draw towards nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement, it became clear by the mid-1960s that within the black freedom struggle there were different visions for the future. Stokely Carmichael (now known as Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton, authors of the impactful book Black Power, deemed the traditional Civil Rights Movement “integrationist,” and called for self-determination within the Black community. While the term self-determination embodied a number of directives, it was a notable departure from the values of nonviolence. Self-determination called for self-defense, more closely resembling an “an eye for an eye” policy. Other groups and individuals adopted similar approaches, such as Malcolm X, SNCC (somewhat ironically, given the group’s name and founding principles), and CORE. The SCLC and NAACP remained true to their nonviolent roots, and this created a rift between the once unified-in-mission civil rights advocacy groups.

Today, with the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York, racist and targeted police brutality in the United States has made headlines all around the world. This police brutality we see today is essentially a reflection of the systematized violence that took place against African Americans in the 1940s to 1960s. The question we need to ask ourselves is what role nonviolence will take in today’s fight to end racial bias in the police force. Malcolm X preached that “self-preservation is the first law of nature” and that “tactics based solely on morality can only succeed when you are dealing with basically moral people or a moral system.” The issue at the center of the fight today is that the United States legal system and the people in it are immoral. The fight is no longer one of religious values, but rather of moral actions. Is nonviolence the best way to fight police brutality? Is there a choice against such superior firepower?

Nonviolence has always existed alongside its darker twin. No matter what names the philosophies bear, they almost never operate alone. The history of the Civil Rights Movement can give some clues about how to deal with today’s racial struggles, but the past can yield no perfect solution for the future. Only time will tell if the American people can find the right balance.

Written on behalf of Dramas of the Civil Rights Era.

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