100 Years of Nonviolent Struggle
"History is not an accident, it is a choice." — Bayard Rustin

Bruce Hartford, 2010

Nonviolent political struggle has been the fundamental engine of social reform throughout most of American history. Let's take a stroll down Memory Lane — 

Shazam! Through the magic power of imagination (and the historical record) we've travelled a century back in time to the year 1910. Let's look around, what do we see?

Voting Rights:

In the election of 1908, the majority of American adults (perhaps two-thirds) are denied the right to vote in one way or another:

U.S. Senators are not elected by the people, but rather appointed by state legislators and governors. The selling of such offices to the highest bidder is commonplace (well, okay, given modern campaign financing maybe that hasn't changed so much).

The decades-long Womans Suffrage Movement, the various campaigns to end the poll tax, the electoral reform efforts, and the voting rights campaigns of the 1960s, eventually ended these abuses. All of those successful campaigns were nonviolent.


Today, while Congress has still not passed any anti-lynching legislation, lynchings are rare events widely covered by the mass media, overwhelmingly condemned by the public, and usually prosecuted. These changes in both public attitude and government response are the result of nonviolent political action.

Labor & Economic Justice:

Today, despite the best efforts of "free market" politicians, there still remains a partial social safety net that was hard won over the past 100 years through the blood, sweat, and tears of struggle. Workers with union jobs can buy homes, own cars, and afford vacation travel. And even non-union wages are above the starvation level for most jobs.

The efforts that won these gains were predominantly nonviolent. Yes, from time to time workers on picket lines did defend themselves against attack by cops, goons, and scabs, but those incidents were the exception not the rule. Despite the fame bestowed on the violent exceptions, 99% of all successful strikes over the past century were nonviolent. And the rare instances where labor attempted offensive violence against people or property usually ended in a decisive defeat. Which is why the militant IWW (the "Wobblies") issued the following warning to all their members: "Beware the man who advocates violence for he is either mad or a police provacateur."

Race and Gender Discrimination:

Today, racial segregation in public accomodations is a crime punishable by law, as is explicit, overt race and gender-based job discrimination. Even though urban police departments and judicial systems still exhibit obvious race-bias, they are at least integrated. And "open-housing" laws have driven overt, explicit, race-based housing discrimination underground in most areas. Obviously, struggles against these and other kinds of discrimination continue, but what progress has been achieved over the past 100 years has been won through nonviolent political action.

Public Health & Safety:

Average American life expectancy in 1910 is 50 years (compared with almost 78 years today). I'm 66 now, so probably I'd already be dead. Five main factors contribute to today's longevity:

  1. Public health and anti-poverty programs have enormously reduced infant and early childhood mortality

  2. Health and safety regulations have vastly decreased health risks.

  3. Public health programs such as mosquito-abatement and immunizations (all of which were initially controversial) have almost entirely eliminated epidemics and plagues.

  4. Medical research (much of it publically funded) has advanced enormously since 1910.

  5. Medicare and other public funding allows retired seniors to afford that advanced medical care.

All of those advances and reforms were won by nonviolent political struggle. But back in 1910, things were quite different. A few examples:

As with other social ills addressed over the past 100 years, advances in public health have been made as the result of nonviolent political action — largely by "women's groups" — who force politicians and courts to protect the many from the ruthless greed of the few.

Government in Our Bedrooms:

From Margaret Sanger's nonviolent civil disobediance in defense of a woman's right to practice birth-control, to the efforts to legalize abortions which led to Roe v Wade, to the anti-racism struggles of the 1960s, to today's fight against homophobia, inch by inch the government has been forced out of our bedrooms by the strategies and tactics of Nonviolent Resistance (though this struggle continues).

The Environment:

The early 1900s marks the emergence of a powerful, nonviolent movement to clean up the environment — a movement largely led by a million women organized into "Women's Clubs." Even though most of them are not allowed to vote, it is they who force through enviromental health legislation by letter writing, public speaking, and mass protest.

Public Education, judicial reform, immigrant rights, and many many other issues, have all been addressed and affected by nonviolent protest and nonviolent political action. Nonviolent strategies and tactics have been central to every successful social and political movement of the past 100 years. And violent strategies and tactics have not only failed in every instance, they've alienated the masses of people who have to be mobilized to effect change. Not only does nonviolence work in America, it's the only thing that does.

Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2010.

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