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Nonviolence: An Interpretation
by Julian Bond
(SNCC Communications Director)

Originally published Freedomways, Spring 1963.

...we are holding nonviolent workshops in the smaller Delta towns. Several people in Shaw have, on their own, asked us to tell them how to go about registering. ... We have mentioned voting only in passing. We have been working on the theory that if you can make a man feel like a whole person and realize his own worth and dignity and if you make him understand his plight better he will want to vote on his own accord" — from a SNCC secretary in the Mississippi Delta.

The adherents of nonviolence as a means to achieve social change fall into two categories. One group, containing most of the activists working in the South today, believes in and has seen the proof of nonviolent direct action as an effective means of protest and as a method of achieving change; the other group, smaller in number, believes in nonviolence not only as a tactic but as a way of life and a philosophy of living. (Let us realize here that no social action method in or by itself is sufficient to successfully integrate the nation's Negro masses. The power of the boycott, legalistic procedures, and mediation are all employed by America's protesting Negroes.)

Opponents of the nonviolent method have yet to offer a suitable alternative. Many point with pride to Robert Williams, ex- President of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP branch, who was hounded from the United States by racists after he encouraged Negroes in Monroe to defend their homes against night riders. But what they fail to recall is that Williams believed in nonviolence, participated in nonviolent demonstrations in Monroe, and was charged with kidnapping a white couple he had taken into his home — in the spirit of nonviolence — to protect them from a Negro mob.

A statistical listing of the successes of nonviolence as typified by the student sit-in movement which began in February, 1960, is impressive. The number of facilities integrated, jobs secured and oppressive laws lifted is great.

But the believers in nonviolence say that it goes further than "just a hamburger." The critic of the students' methods who thinks that these young militants are interested only in dime store lunch counters and movie theaters is seriously mistaken.

"I was in New York the other day," one student said, "and read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. 'Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry masses yearning to be free,' it read. I thought, well, baby, here we are!'"

The young nonviolent protesters who are working in the rural counties of Mississippi's Delta, Alabama's Black Belt and Georgia's cotton country are not aiming at a world where all men can eat together at the same lunch counter. Their aim is to change a society which lets some men keep others from eating where they choose, to develop the "beloved community" they speak of.

To these students, nonviolent protest methods serve two purposes. The method and technique of nonviolence integrate a given lunch counter or movie theater, and the philosophy of nonviolence affords men — those involved in the rights struggle and those opposed to it — a chance at confrontation and exchange of ideas that will certainly make the former stronger and perhaps will convert the latter.

"I know that a person who has a real commitment to nonviolence will never leave the movement," William Porter said. Porter, who headed the youth group of the Albany (Georgia) Movement, said that Albany's success "cannot be measured with Montgomery's where nonviolent protests, and the Supreme Court, brought bus segregation to an end. Our victory here has been over the minds and hearts of Albany's Negro masses, who now not only know how to get their rights, but are determined to do so!"

Porter is one of forty-two college age young people, Negroes and whites, who make up the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). They are all former participants in student sit-in demonstrations in their own homes and college towns, but they have all left their schools, families and in some cases, jobs, to work for SNCC at a $15 a week "subsistence" wage.

They work in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina on direct action and voter registration projects designed, as Saturday Evening Post writer Ben Bagdikian put it, "to upset the social structure of the deep South and to change party politics in the United States."

The historic alignment of Southern Dixiecrats and Northern Republicans, the hypocrisy of both parties in dealing with civil rights, and the lack of any real advancement for Negroes beyond the 1954 Supreme Court's decision motivate these students.

Through their nonviolent workshops in the cotton towns of the rural South, they are spreading a message which transcends lunch counter integration.

SNCC staffer Mrs. Diane Nash Bevel, expecting her first child last summer, surrendered herself to a Mississippi judge who had charged her with "contributing to the delinquency of minors" because she had encouraged young Negroes in Jackson, Mississippi to join the Freedom Rides.

Mrs. Bevel said, "I refuse to cooperate any longer with what I consider to be an immoral court system." The judge, perhaps aware of the hue that would arise were he to sentence an expectant mother to a three-year jail term, refused to sentence her.

Her refusal "to cooperate" with Mississippi's segregated and prejudiced courts stems from her readings and training in nonviolence. Just as the students consider it wrong to inflict harm on another, they consider it evil to participate in any way with a system built on wrong.

For this reason, the workers in SNCC Atlanta office refuse to shop in any of the city's Woolworth's stores. Although the Woolworth branches here integrated a year ago, students in Pine Bluff, Arkansas are currently staging sit-ins at a Woolworth's there.

For this reason, several have registered as conscientious objectors with their draft boards; at least one student, working in the North, has refused to register at all.

"This movement is bigger than a civil rights fight," one of SNCC's Southwest Georgia staffers said. "We're fighting for basic civil liberties. That's what the whole Albany Movement is about, whether the First Amendment applies in Albany or not."

Ruby Doris Smith, a former Freedom Rider who worked on SNCC's first voter registration campaign in Amite County, Mississippi in 1961, says that nonviolence helped build up the courage of the rural Negroes she worked with.

"They had never heard of Martin Luther King or the Montgomery boycott," she says. "But one young girl told me that she wasn't afraid of the police in McComb when she and 112 of her classmates staged a protest march through the town. The older people too, are deeply religious, and find courage in nonviolence. We reminded them that Christ had been nonviolent on the cross, and I think that now, the kids and their parents, realize that not only can they do something to change the system, but that they have an obligation to change it."

One of the tragedies of nonviolence is that the biggest critics are those who understand it least.

Some northern liberals look upon the students as a bunch of modern "Uncle Toms," praying for deliverance while white mobs ravish and beat them. The reverse is true. The students who are working today in Dawson and Leesburg, Georgia, in Shaw, Leland, and Greenwood, Mississippi, and in Gee's Bend, Alabama are daily placing their lives on the line.

When trouble threatens, as it does with unsettling certainty almost every day, they draw upon the inner courage which wells from practicing what they preach: that every man has his own worth, and that all men must strive together to develop the "beloved community."

To a northerner reading of arrests and beatings such a statement may sound trite or even naive, but to the young militants who know it to be true, it is a simple statement of fact.

Copyright © Julian Bond, 1963.

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