Two Kinds of Nonviolent Resistance

Bruce Hartford, 2004

Judging by what they show on TV and teach in the schools today, we mythical heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were self-sacrificing saints who loved our enemies and eagerly faced martyrdom with love in our hearts and a song on our lips. Nope. Wrong. 'Taint so.

There were two different kinds of Nonviolent Resistance practiced by the Freedom Movement of the 1960s:

At the time of the Birmingham campaign in 1963, Dr. King noted to the press that he estimated no more than 10% of those participating in Movement protests were philosophically nonviolent, all the rest were tactically nonviolent. With the explosive growth of the Movement that followed Birmingham, by 1965 the percentage of philosophically nonviolent activists in CORE, SNCC, NAACP, and SCLC was probably closer to 5%.

(Actually, there weren't really two different kinds of nonviolence, rather there was a continuum of believe and practice with philosophical nonviolence at one pole and tactical at the other, with many subtle gradations in between. But it was easier to discuss and debate the differences as if they were two discrete separate concepts and for simplicity sake this article continues that tradition.)

Those of us who were tactically nonviolent did not love our enemies, nor did we believe that our redemptive suffering would convert racists and segregationists to a new outlook of interracial brotherly love.

Rather than changing hearts, our focus was changing behavior — through persuasion if possible, but if that was not possible then by some form of economic or legal coercion. On the broad scale that meant building political movements to win legislation, sway court decisions, and alter social values that would then force racist businesses, institutions, government agencies, and individuals of power to change their behavior regardless of their personal opinions. On a narrower local scale — a particular business that discriminated against people based on their race, for example — we would try persuasion, but if that failed we would try to coerce a change in their behavior through disruptive nonviolent tactics such as a picket line, sit-in, or boycott that affected them economically.

These two views were not hostile to each other — they were just different. Both groups worked well together, simply agreeing to disagree (often at considerable legnth). Dr. King made it quite clear that he was not demanding that others adopt his personal philosophy of nonviolence, and we who were tactically nonviolent respected the courage and commitment of the philosophicals. The two views were not antagonistic because both encompassed the fundamental premis that nonviolence is about active resistance — not passivity.

In the words of SNCC organizer and Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon:

"Many times when people talk about nonviolence, they think of a sort of passivity, a peacefulness. If you are talking about the Civil Rights Movement and our practice of nonviolence, you have to think of aggressive, confrontational activity, edgy activity; action designed to paralyze things as they are, nonviolent actions to force change." [Music in the Civil Rights Movement]

Most people are unable (or unwilling) to love their enemies or practice philosophical nonvilence in all aspects of their life. The Mahatma Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of the world are few and far between. But you don't have to be a Gandhi or a King in order to use Nonviolent Resistance as a strategy and technique of social change and struggle.

See also
      Nonviolent Resistance & Political Power
      Nonviolent Resistance, Reform, & Revolution
      Nonviolent Training
      Notes from a Nonviolent Training Session

 — Copyright © Bruce Hartford

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