Sojourner's Blog

February 1, 2010

Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance

Judging by what they show on TV and teach in the schools today, we mythical heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were self-sacrificing saints who loved our enemies and eagerly faced martyrdom with love in our hearts and a song on our lips. Nope. Wrong. ‘Taint so.

There were two different kinds of Nonviolent Resistance practiced by the Freedom Movement of the 1960s:

  • Philosophical Nonviolence. Those who were philosophically nonviolent did try to love their enemies and did try to refrain from any form of violence in all aspects of their lives. Politically they were pacifists and deeply studied in Gandhian creed. Dr. King, John Lewis, James Lawson, Bernard LaFayette, and others belonged to this group. The heart of philosophical nonviolence was taking action to oppose injustice and winning over one’s enemies through love and redemptive suffering. Yet, despite the media myths, philosophical nonviolents were always a small minority of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Tactical Nonviolence. Those who were tactically nonviolent used Nonviolent Resistance as a tool for building political power — in demonstrations, as an organizing technique & style, and as a political strategy to achieve specific goals. But it was a tactic, not a philosophy of life; and in other situations, — both personal and political, — other strategies and tactics might be used. We who were tactically nonviolent used Nonviolent Resistance because we wanted to win. We saw nonviolence as the most effective way to accomplish our goals through political means. By 1963 the great majority of Freedom Movement activists in CORE, SNCC, NAACP, and even SCLC, were tactically nonviolent rather than philosophically nonviolent.Those of us who were tactically nonviolent did not love our enemies, nor did we believe that our redemptive suffering would convert racists and segregationists to a new outlook of interracial brotherly love. Rather than changing hearts, our focus was changing behavior — through persuasion if possible, but if that was not possible then by coercion. On the broad scale that meant building political movements to win legislation, sway court decisions, and alter social values that would then force racist businesses, institutions, government agencies, and individuals of power to change their behavior regardless of their personal opinions. On a narrower local scale — a particular business that discriminated against people based on their race, for example — we would try persuasion, but if that failed we would try to coerce a change their behavior through disruptive nonviolent tactics such as a sit-in or boycott or shop-in.

But these two views were not hostile to each other — they were just different. Both groups worked well together, simply agreeing to respectfully disagree on it. Dr. King made it quite clear that he was not demanding that others adopt his personal philosophy of nonviolence, and we who were tactically nonviolent respected the courage and commitment of the philosophicals. The two views were not antagonistic because both encompassed the fundamental premis that nonviolence is about active resistance — not passivity. In the words of SNCC organizer and Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon:

Many times when people talk about nonviolence, they think of a sort of passivity, a peacefulness. If you are talking about the Civil Rights Movement and our practice of nonviolence, you have to think of aggressive, confrontational activity, edgy activity; action designed to paralyze things as they are, nonviolent actions to force change.” [Music in the Civil Rights Movement]

Most people are unable (or unwilling) to love their enemies or practice philosophical nonvilence in all aspects of their life — Mahatma Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings are few and far between — which is why it’s important to understand that you don’t have to be a Gandhi or a King in order to use Nonviolent Resistance as a strategy and technique of social change and struggle.

— Copyright © 2004, Bruce Hartford

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3 Comments »

  1. I have fond memories of Jim leading nv workshops in Nashville in 1961.

    Comment by stephencrose — November 2, 2010 @ 12:36 am | Reply

  2. Jim Lawson I think you mean. The line I think was somewhat blurry save at both ends of it.

    Comment by stephencrose — November 1, 2010 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

    • Ooops, you’re quite right. Good catch, thanks. I’ve fixed it.

      Comment by brucehartford — November 2, 2010 @ 12:26 am | Reply


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