100 Years of Nonviolent Struggle
"History is not an accident, it is a
choice." — Bayard Rustin
Nonviolent political struggle has been the fundamental engine of social
reform throughout most of American history. Let's take a stroll down Memory
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?
In the election of 1908, the majority of American adults (perhaps
two-thirds) are denied the right to vote in one way or another:
- Women are not allow to vote. Women who try to vote are sent to
- Blacks are denied the right to vote in the South, and face
violence and economic retaliation if they try to vote in many areas
outside the South.
- In some states Mexican-Americans are legally prohibited from
voting, and where they are (in theory) permitted to vote, they often
face violence and economic retaliation.
- The "Chinese Exclusion" acts prevent Asians of all
nationalities from becoming citizens, so they can't vote either.
- Native Americans are legally considered to be citizens of
"sovereign Indian nations" (meaning the reservations) so they too
- Many states have poll taxes that limit voting only to the
affluent, so poor and working-class white males can't vote either.
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.
- According to official reports, at least 76
people — most of them Black — are lynched
in 1910 (that's more than six each month). But many lynchings are never
reported, so the actual number is unknown.
- The number of Latinos, Asians, and Indians lynched in California
average more than 4 per year between 1850 and 1935. No figures are
available for the other Western states, but many lynchings are known
to have occurred.
- Labor leaders and organizers of all races risk being beaten,
bushwacked or lynched by those determined to prevent workers from
organizing or striking for higher pay.
- Lynchings are such a common event that they rarely merit any
mention at all in the press. A significant segment of public opinion
supports lynching as an effective and necessary means of keeping
racial minorities, immigrants, and dangerous radicals in their place.
- Only rarely are those who foment or participate in a lynching
charged with murder or any other crime. In 1910, Congress again
refuses to pass any legislation to limit or outlaw lynchings. Between
1900 and 1950 more than 200 anti-lynching bills are introduced in
Congress (an average of 4 per year). All are blocked by racist
Southern Democrats and conservative pro-business Republicans.
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:
- In 1910, the typical blue-collar workday is 10-12 hours with no
overtime premium when they make you work longer. For rural labor, the
workday is "can-see to can't see" (up to 16 hours in the heat
- There is no minimum wage and the very idea is condemned as
"Socialism." Wages for most urban and rural blue-collar and domestic
workers are just barely above the starvation level. Your children are
likely to suffer from (and in many cases die of) nutrition-deficiency
diseases. Workers are housed in rat and roach-infested tenements and
- Mine and agriculture workers in rural areas are often not paid in
money but rather credit at the company or plantation store where
prices are high, goods are shoddy, and as the old song goes,
"Another day older and deeper in debt ... I owe my soul to the
- There are no paid vacations or paid holidays, no health or
- There is no unemployment insurance, so when Wall Street
speculators create a depression or "recession," the unemployed go
- There are no workplace safety regulations and many thousands are
crippled and killed on the job every year. There is no Workers
Compensation or Disability Insurance, so when you're maimed on the job
you get to beg on the streets for the rest of your life.
- There is no Social Security, so when you're too old to work, you
have to be supported by your children, and if that option isn't
available, you don't live long.
- In 1910, the Supreme Court issues a ruling in the "Danbury
Hatters" case that effectively makes it a Federal Anti-Trust crime
for a trade union to negotiate or strike for higher pay. This ruling
is then used for decades as the legal justification for police (and in
some cases military) suppression of unions and strikes.
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
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
Race and Gender Discrimination:
- In 1910, most parts of the South are segregated by law and it is common
practice in many other regions of the country. Blacks, Latinos, Indians,
and Asians, are refused service in restaurants, hotels, public swimming
pools, and places of entertainment. Public rest rooms are marked "White
Only" even in government buildings. Government services freely available to
whites are often denied to people of color. In some areas, hospitals refuse
to admit or treat nonwhites. Public transportation is "back of the bus" and
the "Jim Crow car" at the end of the train.
- Job discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and in some
cases nationality or religion, is the norm. For the most part, people
of color are restricted to menial, hard-labor, low-paid jobs. The
better occupations are explicitly "white." At various times and
places, immigrants of different nationalities also face forms of
employment discrimination. Most jobs are culturally-stereotyped as
"men's work" or "women's work." "Women's work" is paid less than
"men's work" — or paid not at all. With rare
exceptions, the blue-collar skilled trades and white-collar
professions are male-only and white-only. Where both whites and
nonwhites, or men and women, do perform the same job, whites and males
are commonly paid significantly more than women or nonwhites. In
newspapers across the country job announcements often specify "White
Only," and want ads in the Classified sections are frequently divided
into four groups — White Male, White Female, Colored
Male, and Colored Female.
- The military is thoroughly segregated. Most police departments
are all white, and it is unusual indeed to find a Black or Latino
judge (since Indians and Asians can't be citizens, they can't be
- In the South and some other regions, there are separate and
cruelly-unequal school systems for whites and Blacks. Elsewhere,
"defacto" school segregation is the norm, with district and assignment
boundaries carefully drawn to create all (or overwhelmingly) white and
nonwhite schools. Both north and south, white schools have
significantly higher funding, better facilities, and newer textbooks
than nonwhite schools. Except for the historically Black colleges,
most institutions of higher learning simply do not admit nonwhites,
and many don't admit (or strictly limit) Jews and other "undesirable"
- In cities across the country, housing segregation is the norm.
Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and in some areas Jews, are restricted to
ethnic ghettos with over-priced, sub-standard tenement housing. In
liberal San Francisco, for example, no Latinos are allowed "north of
the slot" (Market St), Chinese are limited to Chinatown, Filipinos to
Manila Town, Japanese to Japan Town, and the few Blacks can only live
in Hunters Point. In middle-class residential neighborhoods across the
country, home deeds and rental contracts often contain "restrictive
covenants" that make it illegal to sell or rent to anyone of an
undesirable race or religion.
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:
- Public health and anti-poverty programs have enormously reduced
infant and early childhood mortality
- Health and safety regulations have vastly decreased health
- Public health programs such as mosquito-abatement and
immunizations (all of which were initially controversial) have almost
entirely eliminated epidemics and plagues.
- Medical research (much of it publically funded) has advanced
enormously since 1910.
- 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
- In 1910, enforcement of the recently passed Food and Drug Act and
meat inspection regulations are still being blocked by business
lobbies, politicians, and a pro-business Supreme Court. These weak
acts feebly attempt to limit the: "
Interstate transport of food
which has been 'adulterated,' with ... the addition of fillers of
reduced 'quality or strength,' coloring to conceal 'damage or
inferiority,' formulation with additives 'injurious to health,' or the
use of 'filthy, decomposed, or putrid' substances."
- Nor is there any effective regulation of drugs and "tonics"
that often contain dangerous chemicals, addictive narcotics, and
slow-acting poisons. Efforts to limit the worst abuses are fiercely
resisted by whiskey distillers and the patent medicine firms who are
the largest newspaper advertisers in the country.
- Health inspection of restaurants, saloons, boarding-house
kitchens, and labor-camp mess halls is non-existent. Even at "white
tablecloth" restaurants the food is often spoiled or contaminated with
rat shit, roaches, and mysterious additives and fillers. At lesser
establishments the food is worse.
- Deficiency diseases such as rickets, scurvy, beri-beri,
pellagra, and goiter are wide-spread among both urban and rural poor
with hundreds of thousands of children suffering — and
often dying — from malnutrition. Public health
officials such as Dr. Joseph Goldberger are excoriated by business and
political leaders as "dangerous radicals" for claiming that deficiency
diseases such as pellagra are caused by poverty and poor diet rather than
the hand of God or "unit" parents.
- There are few public hospitals. If you're poor and sick or
injured your best hope is a pathetically under-funded "charity"
hospital where your chances of contracting some infectious disease
from other desperately ill patients are about equal to your chances of
getting out alive.
- Product safety is still a controversial idea. In 1910 only a
few states have passed laws prohibiting the common practice of
impregnating wallpaper with arsenic to enhance the colors, though the
fumes are poisonous to both workers and customers.
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:
Under the "Comstock Laws," the selling or distributing of
contraceptives in 1910 is a jailable offense in 30 states. It is a
Federal crime to provide women with information about contraception
through the mail, or to ship contraceptives across state lines. In
Connecticut, it is a crime to practice any form of birth-control in
the privacy of your own home.
- Abortion is a felony everywhere, even in cases of rape, incest, or
when necessary to save the life of the mother.
- In 30 of the 48 states, the felony crime of "miscegenation" makes
it illegal to marry a person of a different race. (But white men
forcing sex on women of color is an accepted custom quaintly referred
to in polite society as "paramour rights.")
- It is a felony for two men, or two women, to have consensual
sexual relations with each other. Urban police departments are active
in apprehending and incarcerating such outlaws.
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).
- In 1910, laws preventing industry from pouring deadly chemicals
into the rivers and lakes that provide untreated drinking water to
large segments of the population are nonexistent, weak, or little
- Efforts at public sanitation are limited. Sewage systems and
water treatment facilities are primative. Cities are allowed to
routinly flush raw sewage into the local streams. The Mississippi is
considered an extension of Chicago's sewer system. That same water is
used for drinking and cooking all the way downstream.
- There any few, if any, prohibitions against poisoning the air
with lethal smokestack fumes. The air breathed by men, women, and
children in industrial centers like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago
is commonly described as a "Foul stinking miasma." In the words of
Upton Sinclair: "[The smoke] came as if self impelled, driving all
before it, a perpetual explosion. It was inexhaustible; one stared,
waiting to see it stop, but still the great streams rolled out. They
spread in vast clouds overhead, writhing, curling, then uniting in one
giant river, they streamed away down the sky, stretching a black pall
as far as the eye could reach."
- Toxic waste can be dumped anywhere a land-owner permits it,
without regard to health consequences of neighbors or the community.
These toxins seep into the ground water contaminating the wells that
people drink from.
- Only a few cars are on the roads in 1910. Most transportation
is still by horses and horse-drawn vehicles. In New York City, 60,000
horses produce 2,500,000 pounds of manure every single day. It all
ends up on the streets and in stable dung heaps. In the summer, feet
and wheels grind it to powder that floats in the air and coats people,
clothing, and food in a dusty film of horse shit. When it rains, the
semi-liquid manure is so deep on Broadway and other avenues that
homeless urchins earn pennies pushing aside the stinking mess with
home-made wooden shit-plows so that well-dressed pedestrians can cross
the street without it overtopping their boots or fouling their long
skirts. At some corners, the filth is so deep that the affluent pay
unemployed laborers to carry them to the opposite
side — literally on backs of the poor. In the Spring
come clouds of flies that last until the first frost. To its credit,
New York creates a small Department of Street Cleaning in 1894, but
its efforts to stem the tide of shit are still inadequate in 1910.
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.
Translations of this page: