Power of Nonviolence
Marin Luther King wrote that nonviolence was the answer to the crucial political and moral dilemmas of the civil rights era. He understood that man needed to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to them. In retrospect, this statement is true for the plight of African-Americans throughout the civil rights movement. From the days of Homer Plessy to the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States, success has been achieved not through violence but through nonviolent acts that lifted up the character of the man. While violence did erupt in certain situations, it rarely ever solved problems and generally made circumstances worse. The most intelligent of protesters understood this notion and advocated peaceful action.
Homer Plessy is probably one of the first individuals that realized racial inequality was wrong and decided to do something about it, whether or not he suffered for it. In 1890, he deliberately broke a law in Louisiana by boarding a white only railway car. He wanted to challenge segregation on the grounds that it violated his Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He did not win his case and it would be decades before the ruling was overturned but what we remember about this man is how he challenged the law in a nonviolent way. Plessy was one of many African-American that decided that they had rights like any other American. These people created needs that were met with the establishment of groups. Prior to the 1960s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League were the two primary associations that worked for civil rights. The NAACP “pushed doggedly to dismantle the legal underpinnings of segregation” (Bailey 911) and it was the first such group to see certain levels of success. While the high court was determining that separate but equal was unconstitutional, individuals were stating their own cause and fighting for their rights in ways that they knew best. They were simply responding to the court’s ruling in their daily lives. Rosa Parks is perhaps one of the most famous nonviolent protestors, decided that she would not give up her seat in a whites only section of a city bus. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and “served notice throughout the South that blacks would no longer submit meekly to the absurdities and indignities of segregation” (Bailey 912). Other successful organizations that fought for the rights of African-Americans without advocating violence were the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose motto was to “resist without bitterness; to be cursed and not reply; to be beaten and not hit back” (Davidson 1167). Another significant organization to emerge during this time was the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
It should also be noted that African-Americans experienced the effects of violence and tried to steer clear of it whenever possible. Morris states that the lynching of Emmett Till is significant because a “generation of young Blacks who would lead the student wing of the modern civil rights movement was coming of age precisely at the time of Till’s lynching” (522). Till’s murder and the outcome of the trial “radicalized” (522) them. The most distinctive aspect of the movement was “its demonstration that the oppressed… can generate social change through the widespread use of social protest” (524) and it evolved over time. The Montgomery bus project revealed that large numbers of people could be mobilized to protest and that protests could last indefinitely. The Montgomery bus protest lasted longer than a year and it “revealed the central role that would be played by social organization and a Black culture rooted in a protest tradition, if protests were to be successful” (524). The African-American church and community were energized by the protest and successful social movement organizations were established as a result. For a decade, protests such occurred in the Southern United States and they were primarily supported. Sit-ins became popular and before long, the movement established an “important mass base’ (Morris 525). The evolution of this form of protest is what led to the very organized force that would “topple Jim Crow” (525). During the mid 1960s, “highly public demonstrations” (525) increased in number and were strengthened with support from various individuals. These such protests demonstrated that African-Americans were serious more than anything else.
Martin Luther King was chosen to lead the movement and under his direction, nonviolent action emerged as “crucial, for it robbed the white power structure of its ability to openly crush the movement violently without serious repercussions” (525). King was perhaps the most effective voice for the cause of nonviolent action. In his essay “Nonviolence and the Montgomery Boycott,” King clearly identifies the importance of nonviolence, noting that nonviolence does not automatically mean surrender. He wrote, that nonviolence does not “seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding” (265). King’s ideas spread throughout the country and he organized a march on Washington where 250,000 individuals gathered to “demonstrate their support for civil rights and racial harmony” (Davidson 1170). Here King gave his famous speech in which he describes his dream for African-Americans. Others helped the movement as well. In his essay, “The New Jacobins and Full Emancipation” James Farmer supports King. He understands the need for control during protests. He explains how violence often does more harm to the cause that anything else. He observes, “violence by the freedom fighters would sever from the struggle all but a few of our allies” (Farmer 357). Violence may also cause contention between freedom fighters, which would again do more harm than good. He writes an “expeditious and thorough program of discipline, internal and externally” is what everyone must desire in order for progress to be made. (357) Stokely Carmichael agrees, noting that for individuals to make a difference, people “must begin to think politically and see if we can have the power to impose and keep the moral values that we hold high. We must question the values of this society” (Carmichael 439). He realized that the war on racism was a “psychological battle on the right for black people to define themselves as the see fit” (440). Here we see that King’s nonviolent ideas ignited the souls of many who knew the cause could be won without violence and evil.
The civil rights movement is one that is filled with violence directed at one group of individuals. Through that experience, they understood that violence was not the answer. As individuals began to make small, seemingly insignificant stands for their freedom, they were actually setting a precedence for thousands in the years to come. When king wrote that violence and oppression could only be overcome with nonviolent behavior, he war right.
Bailey, Thomas and Kennedy, David. The American Pageant. Lexington D.C. Heath and Company. 1994.
Carmichael, Stokely. “Black Power.” Black Protest. Joanne Grant, ed. New York: Ballentine Books. 1968.
Davidson, James, et al. Nation of Nations. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company. 1990.
Farmer, James. “The New Jacobins and Full Emancipation” Black Protest. Joanne Grant, ed. New York: Ballentine Books. 1968.
King, Martin Luther. “Nonviolence and the Montgomery Boycott.” Black Protest. Joanne Grant, ed. New York: Ballentine Books. 1968.
Morris, Aldon D. “A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement: Political and Intellectual Landmarks.” Annual Review of Sociology. 1999. JSTOR Resource Database. http://www.jstor.org
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