I was at Fisk University at the time that I got drawn into SNCC. And after the first three or four weeks, I guess, when the novelty of being in a new school wore off, I really started feeling unjustly limited by not being able to go downtown with a girlfriend and have lunch, even at someplace like Woolworth's or Walgreen's, and not being able to attend a movie theater in town. I was in college and I thought that this was a time when I should be expanding and growing as a human being, so I started asking people around the Fisk campus, other students, if they knew of any organizations that were trying to do something about this.
I was from Chicago, which is very segregated, but the public accommodations were not segregated. And I was quite outraged when I first encountered "white" and "colored" signs at the rest rooms at the Tennessee State Fair. So I asked the students if they knew of anyone trying to do anything about it. I asked many students and they not only told me no, they didn't know of anything, but their response was along the lines of "No, and why are you trying to do anything? It's been this way a long time and it's probably going to stay." I came to the depressing conclusion that Fisk students were really apathetic. And then of course I did find out about the [nonviolence] workshops that Jim Lawson was holding and proceeded to go to them.
Frequently today, I hear people say that students are apathetic, and I really doubt it, because I do some talking on college campuses and there are always one or two students that come up afterward and say, "I'd really like to do something meaningful with my life. You got any ideas? What do you think about the Peace Corps or something like that?"
And what happened with the students at Fisk that I thought were apathetic, was that when there was a framework for them to move into, when you could say, "We're having a sit-in, Tuesday morning at 10:00, be at such and such a place," they were there. And by the hundreds and thousands. They were on picket lines and sitting at lunch counters and going to jail. So it turned out that they were not apathetic after all. And I think that if there's an ingredient that we in my generation have not provided, that I was fortunate enough to have had, it is that my generation has not provided a framework for youth today to move into and to make the necessary changes.
I think history's most important function is to help us better cope with the present and the future. So I'd like to talk about the philosophy behind the civil rights movement that drove it in its very early stages. We aspired in the sixties to the redeemed community or, as we frequently called it, the beloved community. A community recovered or fulfilled, a community that could become more of what its potential was. We defined the beloved community as a community that gave to its citizens in that it could give and allowed its members to then give back to the community all that they could. Our goal was to reconcile, to heal and to rehabilitate, to solve problems rather than to simply gain power over the opposition, and it really comes to the question of do you believe that human beings can be healed, can be rehabilitated.
It's very interesting to me that so many of the struggles for liberation in the world seek to create a beloved society, a society where human beings get along, where democracy is practiced, but those struggling for liberation try to achieve these ends by killing people. And in spite of the fact that efforts toward liberation had been going on for thousands of years and in each generation, it's surprising to note with all that effort for so long, that there are still relatively few places on earth where the level of social, economic, and political liberation is very high.
So it pays, I think, to go back and look at our methods and see if it isn't possible to become more efficient in terms of how we struggle for liberation. I think that the philosophy behind the movement of the sixties was very special, unique in terms of my own life in the late sixties. In the early sixties I had been very much dedicated to what we called nonviolence; in the late sixties I decided that it was an impotent, probably ineffective way to struggle for liberation. And I felt that way for a few years until I noticed that I hadn't killed anybody, I hadn't been to the rifle range, I hadn't blown up anything and truly, I had done very little during that period of time where I had decided that violence was the way to go, and I also noticed that the movement had not attracted large numbers of people in the kind of meaningful social action that it had attracted while we were using the philosophy of nonviolence.
Now, there is a connectedness with other historical periods and also a connectedness worldwide. We really used the philosophy that Mohandas Gandhi developed in India. He called it satyagraha, which is the Hindi word for holding on to truth. A young minister by the name of James Lawson had been to India, had spent some time in prison in this country because he was a conscientious objector. He refused to go into the Korean War, but he had studied Gandhi's philosophy in India and brought that philosophy to Nashville. Many of us who were students there at the time attended workshops regularly and became educated in the philosophy and the techniques that Gandhi used toward the independence of India from Great Britain.
I would like to mention a few of the basic tenets underlying the philosophy; First, we took truth and love very seriously. We felt that in order to create a community where there was more love and more humaneness, it was necessary to use humaneness and love to try to get to that point. Ends do not justify means. As Gandhi said, everything is really a series of means. We took truth very seriously; in fact, I'm sure I've lived an entirely different kind of life as a result of having been exposed to the philosophy in those early years. Truth now for me has very little to do with being good or doing what's right It's more relevant to me in terms of providing oneself and people around one with accurate information upon which to base our behavior and base our decisions.
That principle has been very well understood, I think, in the natural sciences. It's quite clear that when scientists are calculating their mathematical problems or conducting experiments, they try to be as accurate and as truthful as possible. I think that that might be one reason why the natural sciences are in the space age and the social sciences are in primitive stages. Lying is institutionalized in our social relations. Countries lie to countries. The whole purpose of the CIA is to spy and to lie, and the FBI also. Governments of countries lie to the citizens. Boyfriends lie to girlfriends, girlfriends to boyfriends, husbands and wives to each other. In our personal relationships or governmental, economic, and business relationships we come to expect a great deal of untruth.
I think another fundamental quality of the movement is that we used nonviolence as an expression of love and respect of the opposition while noting that a person is never the enemy. The enemy is always attitudes, such as racism or sexism, political systems that are unjust, economic systems that are unjust, some kind of system or attitude that oppresses. Not the person himself or herself. We had some illustrations of that in that one of the managers in particular of a lunch counter in Nashville who was the opposition the first year that we had sit-ins, 1960, became an ally the second year and he was talking to managers of the restaurants that we were trying to desegregate the second year and saying, "Well, I know how it is, it sounds really difficult but it's not so bad," and was actually encouraging the managers to desegregate.
Another important tenet, I think, of the philosophy was recognizing that oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed. So that rather than doing harm to the oppressor, another way to go is to identify your part in your own oppression and then withdraw your cooperation from the system of oppression. Guaranteed if the oppressed withdraw their cooperation from their own oppression, the system of oppression cannot work. An example of that would be the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56. For many years, Montgomery blacks assumed that Alabama whites were segregating them on buses. But in order to have segregated buses, it was necessary for the blacks to get on the bus, pay their fare, and walk to the back of the bus. When Montgomery blacks decided that there weren't going to be segregated buses anymore, there were segregated buses no more. It didn't take any change on the part of whites; when the blacks decided, then there were no longer segregated buses. So then, you have to ask yourself the question, well, who was segregating the buses all this time?
I think there's a thin line between what's known as blaming the victim and identifying appropriate responsibility, and I think that when you do identify your own responsibility in an oppressive situation, it then puts you in a position of power, because then you are able to withdraw your participation and therefore end the system.
There is so much about the philosophy that people as a whole never knew, because what was reported in the newspapers was just the fact that the demonstrators were not hitting back or not creating violence. But there were five steps in the process that we took a community through:
The first step was investigation, where we did all the necessary research and analysis to totally understand the problem.
The second phase was education, where we educated our own constituency to what we had found out in our research.
The third stage was negotiation, where you approach the opposition, let them know your position, and try to come to a solution.
The fourth stage was demonstration, where the purpose was to focus the attention of the community on the issue and on the injustice.
And the last stage was resistance, where you withdraw your support from the oppressive system, and during this stage would take place things such as boycotts, work stoppages, and nonsupport of the system.
I think that the philosophy that started in Nashville, that was borrowed from India, the philosophy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in its early days, has a great deal of merit. Everything considered, there was a considerable amount of social change achieved. There were some deaths, a number of injuries. But in looking at the efficiency of that struggle and comparing the number of casualties, I think that the philosophy that Gandhi developed works, and appears to me to be more efficient than many violent struggles.
I would really urge you to do some studying of the history of nonviolence and some reading of how it works. I think it's got great potential for today and I think that we need to really get past the idea that going to the polls and voting is enough. I think we'd better take this country and its economics and politics into our own hands. We, the people. If we don't, we're going to lose more and more control of it. Nonviolence is certainly an approach that we should look into.
Some people think it was the influx of northerners, of whites, that made the redemptive community idea dissipate. I don't agree; I think it's possible for even a large-scale movement to operate as a band of brothers and sisters, a circle of trust. The reason wasn't that new people came in. I think we did not devote enough time and energy into the education of the people coming in. In Nashville, we started the teaching process before the sit-ins began in Greensboro on February 1, 1960. So there was quite a bit of time for them to become well versed.
But what happened was that we got involved in going to jail and organizing and what have you and I think did not devote enough time and energy into training new people. When I first got exposed to the philosophy, I really didn't think it would work. And I had had a lot of training in it. But it was the only thing that was going on in Nashville that was trying to do something to combat the problem. And so I said, "Well, I'll go along with it." But I really didn't think it would work. It was only in the process of using it that I finally became convinced. I always had the feeling that many of the people from throughout the South, including a number of people who were in SNCC, probably did not understand it to the level that many of us did in Nashville. And so I think education was the key.
It's true that one of the things that worked for us was that people like Bull Connor played into our hands by attacking us and getting it all onto the news. Now it seems that the system has learned to play the game, and people have wondered if a nonviolent movement can still succeed when those in power understand how to defuse it. Well, I do believe it can.
One of the problems that we had was with the term "nonviolence" because it means absence of violence. And that term does not really describe the process. Absence of violence is really just one aspect of it. This is a whole, very active program, a process that a community is taken through. I think that the many demonstrations or efforts that are called "nonviolent" are only in terms of there being an absence of violence. They are not using the whole spectrum of activities in preparation and withdrawal of support. You really have to analyze what supports the system, what's financial, what's political, what's PR, and how the people as a whole are participating. So I think we haven't really been using the entire process of nonviolence. So even if the opposition understands this and we understand it, I think we can prevail.
Another thing. I think it's important to understand that today we are past the point of protests and attempting to show the government or show the powers that be that we don't like X, Y, or Z. I think we have to begin thinking of how we are going to solve it and make the ends of any demonstrations or efforts along that line what it is that we are going to do. For instance, if we object to the way the media is covering something, then we know that the media is controlled by the powers that be. It has very limited use to let the media or the government or whomever know that we don't like it. They know that we don't like it already. The idea is, decide what you need and do it yourself. Take matters into your own hands and do it yourself.
I sometimes think that there is kind of a mass masochism that we're all suffering from right now. Our water is poisoned. Our air is being poisoned. The soil, the toxic waste. We're eating food with cancer causing chemicals. All kinds of gross things that go on and we read about them in the newspapers and maybe make a comment or two to each other, "Isn't that awful that they are doing this to us?" and then we turn the page of the newspaper and go on off to work the next morning or to school the next morning, tra la. As though our life isn't being threatened. If you were about to eat and I told you that the cook who was about to bring your food was in the next room poisoning your food and you just proceeded to go on and eat it, it would be clear that you were crazy. With all the social problems that we have right now, it's clear to me that we're not acting in a psychologically healthy manner. I think one thing that we need to do is stop lying to ourselves and realize that our life is being threatened.
See Nonviolent Resistance as Practiced in
the Freedom Movement for background & more information.
See also Nonviolent Resistance for web links.
Copyright © Diane Nash. 1988