Nonviolence: An Interpretation
by Julian Bond
(SNCC Communications Director)
Originally published Freedomways, Spring
...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
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
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
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
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
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.