Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the very deserving front man on whom we shower accolades and credit for the achievements attained during the Civil Rights Movement, it was the collaborative effort of several groups of strategic thinkers who carefully plotted out and executed an irreversible, genius plan to equalize life for black people in America. The strategy used is called nonviolent direct-action protest.
Looking back at this time through scant surveys of movies, books, news articles, or documentaries, we may not be able to get a full grasp of the context of what these brilliant and brave men and women actually did. We see the external actions briefly mentioned in history books: the marches, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the picketing… We’ve seen pictures of opposing citizens and police officers beating protesters with sticks and billy clubs, spraying them with high-pressure fire hoses, chasing them down with police dogs, calling them abhorrent names, and spitting on them. Why through all of this did they decide that nonviolence and civil disobedience was the right position to maintain in order to see the changes they dreamed become reality?
The core of this nonviolent movement was formed partly by studying Ghandi’s teachings used in India’s fight for independence and partly from studying the words and life of Jesus. Three of the more influential groups during this time who ascribed to nonviolent tactics were the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”).
Each group had various focuses. CORE, founded in 1942, is known for it’s Freedom Riders whose efforts eventually ended segregation on interstate bus routes. SCLC, organized by Dr. King and others in 1957, is most noted for voter registration drives, Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, and influencing the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. SNCC, started in 1960, conducted sit-ins, participated in freedom rides, and sponsored voter registration and citizenship education drives. But central to all three groups was a commitment to nonviolence.
If you were to read through each groups’ statements of purpose, pledges, and rules for action, you would find that every person joining anyone of these groups had to be willing to lay down personal agendas and all desire to retaliate. Their ability to be cool and self-controlled under threats and acts of violence was paramount to the success of the movement.
Here are some of the actions CORE members had to agree to:
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.—Martin Luther King Jr.
SNCC members statement of purpose reads like this:
“We affirm the philosophical and religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from the Judeo-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love….Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Mutual regard cancels enmity….Love is the central motif of nonviolence….Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.”
The tenets for the SCLC would have followed similar verbiage as demonstrated through Dr. King’s leadership.
At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.—Martin Luther King Jr.
How often do we hear talk like this nowadays when racial or cultural conflict arises? These are the words that governed the mind-sets and behaviors of those who were on the front lines of the racial conflict in American between the 1950s and 1960s. These words indicate a deliberate and thought-out choice each person had to make upon deciding to sign up for the battle for their lives.
Understand that the men and women who were driven to see change were not passive. Many of them showed up to these workshops emotionally charged, angry, and embittered by all they had lived through. I imagine that for many of them nonviolence was not their first choice on how to respond to the atrocities and humiliation they endured on a daily basis. They had to be reconditioned from the inside out to unify with the radical strategies of these groups.
Nonviolence is radical when all you want to do is fight and see those who made you suffer suffer. An eye for an eye would be the natural mantra of people who had been under such horrible oppression for over three hundred years in America, by this point.
The reconditioning happened in regular tactical nonviolence training workshops where their anger and bitterness were validated and then given a place to be released through role playing. They learned how to refocus their energies into something positive and long-lasting. According to a handout from one of the workshops, tension and frustration among the activist and volunteers were expected:
“Everyone has tensions. Especially those of us who are victims of segregation. When we get out in the streets we need to keep our tensions under control. But in a crisis, tensions build up. People blow up. In a long campaign people begin to “crack”; in other words, they suffer from “battle fatigue.” In workshop situations everybody has a chance to blow off steam, to get rid of a lot of those tensions. Then when we get into the streets we are cooled off. Let loose in the workshop so you can be cool in the streets, make cool decisions, carry out cool action.”
We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.—Martin Luther King Jr.
In these training workshops they would practice scenarios and plan how they would peacefully resist. They learned how to crouch in the right position to reduce serious injuries if they were caught and beaten by police. They learned how to shove their hands in their pockets to avoid swinging on attackers who may put lit cigarettes out on their bare skin or set their hair on fire during lunch-counter sit-ins. They practiced how to maintain a position of peace and forgiveness in worst-case scenarios. More examples of violence demonstrators endured include:
In his report, Bruce Hartford, a tactical nonviolence expert who trained many of these groups said that the above abuses were inflicted upon “civil rights demonstrators in Los Angeles, California in 1963—not in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama. In the deep South the violence was much worse.”
Perhaps we think that the men and women who participated in these nonviolent acts of civil disobedience were so meek and mild by nature and perhaps showed up to restaurants and local businesses naively thinking they would be served. I know at one point I did. I had no idea how strategic and well organized they were. My American history books skipped over that part. These groups were well-trained, focused, and unified. Stepping outside of the group’s plans and acting on one’s own was greatly discouraged and could end in dismissal from the group. Everything had to be done at the right time and in the right way. If a local segregated business was a group’s target for integration, they sent communication to the business ahead of time, telling them of their plans to stage nonviolent protest against their discriminatory practices. Then the protesters followed through knowing that violence was imminent and that could be their last day on the battlefield.
These men and women knew that any misstep or retaliatory act on their part would ruin things for all the others they were fighting with and for. They knew they had to take their roles seriously and strategically. Everyone wasn’t suited for every mission. For many of the missions, “agitators” were carefully chosen because of certain physical or personality traits that would endear them to the media and create empathy and outrage at their mistreatment. Rosa Parks was such a one.
Rosa Parks was not only a sweet, mild-mannered woman who was tired one day and randomly sat down in the wrong seat on a random bus. No, she was a carefully selected by Montgomery Bus Boycott organizers to do exactly as she did. The day was chosen. The bus was chosen. The stop was chosen. Parks was indeed mild-mannered but also a bold, card-carrying member of the NAACP and was well trained in and committed to peaceful resistance tactics to see segregation end in the South. Her manner and physicality played a significant role into why she was the one who sat down on the specifically chosen bus on December 1, 1955, and the strategy worked.
Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.—Martin Luther King Jr.
Many others stepped forward throughout the movement trained to endure beatings, jailing, tear gassing, and humiliating insults without retaliating, all to draw the attention of the media and to engender outrage and empathy from the American public. This is exactly what King and others used to forward the movement’s efforts in Selma. Millions of people around the world were watching as Alabama state troopers beat and tear gassed hundreds of unarmed, peaceful demonstrators asking only for their right to vote. Had they fought back against the police and their racist neighbors, news outlets would have reported an entirely different story, the movement’s image would have been labeled as militant, no empathy or support from outsiders would have been given, and in the end all their efforts would have been nullified.
Martin Luther King Jr. served as the integrity leader, motivator, and spokesman for these groups, unifying them for maximum impact. But it was King and all the thinkers and strategists in those church basements and meeting halls who crafted a nonviolent coalition whose impact was far-reaching and effected by highly intellectual and complex strategies.
What can we learn from these brilliant change agents that would help us positively influence the ails still existing in our society? Are we able to lay down our eye-for-an-eye mentality for the greater good? Will we admit mistakes and avoid discrediting our opponents, as the members of CORE pledged to do, to see our dreams realized? What personal vendettas can we give up to bring honesty and purity back to our missions?
Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.—Martin Luther King Jr.
“Civil Rights and Nonviolence,” http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/februaryone/civilrights.html.
Bruce Hartford, “Nonviolent Training,” 2004, http://www.crmvet.org/info/nv3.htm.
“Case Study: Statements of Discipline of Nonviolent Movements,” http://www.crmvet.org/docs/nv_case_study.pdf.
Henry Louis Gates, The African Americans, PBS, 2012.
Martin Oppenheimer, “Workshops in Nonviolence—Why?” http://www.crmvet.org/docs/nv_core_workshop.pdf.
“Rosa Parks,” Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Parks. – See more at: http://www.jevonbolden.com/2015/01/the-genius-of-nonviolence-and-peaceful.html#sthash.FnXoISrG.dpuf