Those who dispute the effectiveness of Nonviolent Resistance claim that “Nonviolence cannot work in America.” Nonsense. Nonviolent political struggle has been the fundamental engine of social reform throughout our history. Let’s take a stroll down Memory Lane —
Shazam! Through the magic power of imagination (and the historical record) we’ve travelled a century back in time to the year 1910. Let’s look around, what do we see?
- Women are not allow to vote. Women who try to vote are sent to jail.
- Blacks are denied the right to vote in the South, and face violence and economic retaliation if they try to vote in many areas outside the South.
- In some states Mexican-Americans are legally prohibited from voting, and where they are (in theory) permitted to vote, they often face violence and economic retaliation.
- The “Chinese Exclusion” acts prevent Asians of all nationalities from becoming citizens, so they can’t vote either.
- Native Americans are legally considered to be citizens of “sovereign Indian nations” (meaning the reservations) so they too cannot vote.
- Many states have poll taxes that limit voting only to the affluent.
- In the Presidential election of 1910, the majority of American adults (perhaps two-thirds) are denied the right to vote in one way or another.
- U.S. Senators are not elected by the people, but rather appointed by state legislators and governors. The selling of such offices to the highest bidder is commonplace.
The decades-long Womans Suffrage Movement, the campaign to end the poll tax, electoral reform efforts, and the voting rights campaigns of the 1960s, eventually ended these abuses. All of those successful campaigns were nonviolent.
- According to official reports, at least 76 people — most of them Black — are lynched in 1910 (that’s more than six a month). But many lynchings are never reported, so the actual number is unknown.
- The number of Latinos, Asians, and Indians lynched in California average more than 4 per year between 1850 and 1935. No figures are available for the other Western states, but many lynchings are known to have occurred.
- Labor leaders and organizers of all races risk being beaten, bushwacked or lynched by those determined to prevent workers from organizing or striking for higher pay.
- In 1910, Congress again refuses to pass any legislation to limit or outlaw lynchings. Between 1900 and 1950 more than 200 anti-lynching bills are introduced in Congress (an average of 4 per year). All are blocked by racist Southern Democrats and conservative pro-business Republicans. Only rarely are those who foment or participate in a lynching charged with murder or any other crime.
- The national press pays little attention to lynchings because they’re such a common event in American society. A significant segment of public opinion supports lynching as an effective and necessary means of keeping racial minorities, immigrants, and dangerous radicals in their place.
Today, while Congress has still not passed any anti-lynching legislation, lynchings are rare events widely covered by the mass media, overwhelmingly condemned by the public, and usually prosecuted. These changes in both public attitude and government response are the result of nonviolent political action.
Government in the Bedroom:
- Under the “Comstock Laws,” the selling or distributing contraceptives in 1910 is a jailable offense in 30 states. It is a Federal crime to provide women with information about contraception through the mail, or to ship contraceptives across state lines. In Connecticut, it is a crime to practice any form of birth-control in the privacy of your own home.
- Abortion is a felony everywhere, even in cases of rape, incest, or when necessary to save the life of the mother.
- In 30 of the 48 states, the felony crime of “miscegenation” makes it illegal to marry a person of a different race. (But white men forcing sex on women of color is an accepted custom quaintly referred to in polite society as “paramour rights.”)
- It is a felony for two men, or two women, to have consensual sexual relations with each other. Urban police departments are active in apprehending and incarcerating such outlaws.
From Margaret Sanger’s nonviolent civil disobediance in defense of a woman’s right to practice birth-control, to the efforts to legalize abortions which led to Roe v Wade, to the anti-racism struggles of the 1960s, to today’s fight against homophobia, inch by inch the government has been forced out of our bedrooms by the strategies and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance (though this struggle continues).
Race and Gender Discrimination:
- In 1910, most parts of the South require segregation by law and it is common practice in many other regions of the country. Blacks, Latinos, Indians, and Asians, are refused service in restaurants, hotels, public swimming pools, and places of entertainment. Public rest rooms are marked “White Only” even in government buildings. Government services freely available to whites are often denied to people of color. In some areas, hospitals refuse to admit or treat non-whites. Public transportation is “back of the bus” and the “Jim Crow car” at the end of the train.
- Job discrimination on the bases of race, gender, and in some cases nationality is the norm. For the most part, people of color are restricted to menial, hard-labor, low-paid jobs. The better occupations are explicitly “white.” At various times and places, immigrants of different nationalities also face forms of employment discrimination. Most jobs are culturally-stereotyped as “men’s work” or “women’s work.” “Women’s work” is paid less than “men’s work” — or paid not at all. With rare exceptions, the blue-collar skilled trades and white-collar professions are male-only and white-only. Where both whites and non-whites, or men and women, do perform the same job, whites and males are commonly paid significantly more than women or non-whites. In newspapers across the country job announcements often specify “White Only” and want ads in the Classified sections are frequently divided into four groups — White Male, White Female, Colored Male, and Colored Female.
- The military is thoroughly segregated. Most police departments are all white, and it is unusual indeed to find a Black or Latino judge (since Indians and Asians can’t be citizens, they can’t be judges either).
- In the South and some other regions, there are separate and cruelly-unequal school systems for whites and Blacks. Elsewhere, “defacto” school segregation is the norm, with district and assignment boundaries carefully drawn to create all (or overwhelmingly) white and non-white schools. Both north and south, white schools have significantly higher funding, better facilities, and newer textbooks than non-white schools. Except for the historically Black colleges, most institutions of higher learning simply do not admit non-whites, and many don’t admit (or strictly limit) Jews and other “undesirable” whites.
- In cities across the country, housing segregation is the norm. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and in some areas Jews, are restricted to ethnic ghettos with over-priced, sub-standard tenement housing. In liberal San Francisco, for example, no Latinos are allowed “north of the slot” (Market St), Chinese are limited to Chinatown, Filipinos to Manila Town, Japanese to Japan Town, and the few Blacks can only live in Hunters Point. In middle-class residential neighborhoods across the country, home deeds and rental contracts often contain “restrictive covenants” that make it illegal to sell or rent to anyone of an undesirable race or religion.
Today, racial segregation in public accomodations is a crime punishable by law, as is explicit, overt race and gender-based job discrimination. Even though urban police departments and judicial systems still exhibit obvious race-bias, they are at least integrated. And “open-housing” laws have driven overt, explicit, race-based housing discrimination underground in most areas. Obviously, struggles against these and other kinds of discrimination continue, but what progress has been achieved over the past 100 years has been won through nonviolent action.
- In 1910, the typical blue-collar workday is 10-12 hours with no overtime pay if you have to work longer. For rural labor, the workday is “can-see to can’t see” (up to 16 hours in the heat of summer).
- Wages for most urban and rural blue-collar and domestic workers are just barely above the starvation level. Your children are likely to suffer from (and in many cases die of) nutrition-deficiency diseases. Workers are housed in rat and roach-infested tenements and shanties.
- There are no paid vacations or holidays.
- There is no unemployment insurance, so when Wall Street speculators create a depression or recession, the unemployed go hungry.
- There are no workplace safety regulations and thousands are maimed and killed on the job every year. There is no Workers Compensation or Disability Insurance, so when you’re maimed on the job you get to beg on the streets for the rest of your life.
- There is no Social Security, so when you’re too old to work, you have to be supported by your children, and if that option isn’t available, you don’t live long.
- In 1910, the Supreme Court issues a ruling in the “Danbury Hatters” case that effectively makes it a Federal Anti-Trust crime for a trade union to negotiate or strike for higher pay. This ruling is then used for decades as the legal justification for police (and in some cases military) suppression of unions and strikes.
Today, despite the best efforts of “free market” politicians, there still remains a partial social safety net that was hard won over the past 100 years through the blood, sweat, and tears of struggle. Workers with union jobs can buy homes, own cars, and afford vacation travel. And even non-union wages are far above starvation level. The efforts that won these gains were predominantly nonviolent. Yes, from time to time workers on picket lines did defend themselves against attack by cops, goons, and scabs, but those incidents were the exception not the rule. Despite the fame bestowed on the violent exceptions, 99% of all successful strikes over the past century were nonviolent. And the rare cases where labor attempted offensive violence against people or property that usually led to a decisive defeat. Which is why the militant IWW (the “Wobblies”) issued the following warning to all their members: “Beware the man who advocates violence for he is either mad or a police provocateur.”
Public Health & Safety:
- The average life expectancy of Americans in 1910 is 50 years (compared with almost 78 years today).
- In 1910, enforcement the recently passed Food and Drug Act and meat inspection regulations are still being blocked by business lobbies, politicians, and a pro-business Supreme Court. These weak acts attempt to limit the “
interstate transport of food which has been 'adulterated,' with ... the addition of fillers of reduced 'quality or strength,' coloring to conceal 'damage or inferiority,' formulation with additives 'injurious to health,' or the use of 'filthy, decomposed, or putrid' substances.“
- Nor is there any effective regulation of drugs and “tonics” that often contain dangerous additives, addictive narcotics, and slow-acting poisons. Efforts to limit the worst abuses are fiercely resisted by whiskey distillers and the patent medicine firms who are the largest newspaper advertisers in the country.
- Health inspection of restaurants, saloons, boarding-house kitchens, and labor-camp mess halls is non-existent. Efforts at public sanitation are limited. Sewage systems and water treatment facilities are primative.
- Deficiency diseases such as rickets, scurvy, beri-beri, pellagra, and goiter are wide-spread among both urban and rural poor with hundreds of thousands of children suffering — and often dying — from malnutrition. Public health officials such as Dr. Joseph Goldberger are excoriated by business and political leaders as “dangerous radicals” for claiming that deficiency diseases such as pellagra are caused by poverty and poor diet.
- There are few public hospitals. If you’re poor and sick or injured your best hope is a pathetically under-funded “charity” hospital where your chances of contracting some infectious disease from other desperately ill patients are about equal to your chances of getting out alive.
As with other social ills addressed over the past 100 years, advances in public health have been made as the result of nonviolent political action — largely by “women’s groups” — who force politicians and courts to protect the many from the ruthless greed of the few.
Enviroment, Public Education, Judicial Reform, Immigrant Rights, and so many other issues, all addressed and affected by nonviolent protest and nonviolent political action. Nonviolent strategies and tactics have been central to every successful social and political movement of the past 100 years. And violent strategies and tactics have not only failed in every instance, they’ve alienated the masses of people who have to be mobilized to effect change. Not only does nonviolence work in America, it’s the only thing that does.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2010. Noncommercial use with attribution is permitted.