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The Power of Nonviolence

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CSU Archives/Everett CollectionDemonstrators lock arms in front of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, AL. Sheriff Jim Clark had them all arrested, 1965.

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Last spring The Nation Institute sponsored a forum at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City on "Gandhi, King and the Power of Nonviolence: Alternatives to Force in the 21st Century." The participants were Jonathan Schell, The Nation's Peace and Disarmament correspondent, author of The Fate of the Earth and most recently, The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger; and Taylor Branch, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning three-volume history of the Martin Luther King era. The moderator was the writer Suzannah Lessard. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

SCHELL:

I believe that Gandhi's Satyagraha is the most important political discovery of the twentieth century. It happened on September 11, 1906, in the Empire Theater in Durban, South Africa. At that time the Indian community in South Africa had been suffering very serious oppression, not unlike apartheid. The Indians were not allowed to vote. They couldn't own land in certain places, and in 1906 a law was passed that greatly heightened their oppression. The Indian community called it the Black Act. It consisted of forcing everybody to be registered, fingerprinted on pain of imprisonment or expulsion.

Gandhi saw the act as an attempt to destroy this community. He said, "It meant absolute ruin for the Indians in South Africa." And he said, "It's better to die than to submit to such a law." So Satyagraha was born to defend the right of a people to exist, in the face of what today we would call ethnic cleansing or even genocide.

Another interesting feature of the event was that it occurred on the spur of the moment at the Empire Theater in Durban. Gandhi later wrote, "The foundations of the first civil resistance under the then well-known name of passive resistance were laid by accident. I had gone to a meeting with no preconceived resolution. It was born at the meeting."

At the meeting a gentleman called Seth Haji Habib demanded that the audience take an oath, before God, not to observe the Black Act. Gandhi was startled because he saw a world of difference between a mere vote and an actual oath by individuals, which he believed could only be taken by those people themselves and which was binding on them no matter what anyone else did. A new force, a new power, was being brought to bear in politics, a new commitment, a new will really unto death, yet without violence.

BRANCH:

I'd like to jump forward to late in the twentieth century. Dr. King was in Birmingham leading a movement to break segregation, and after great anguish he had taken this great gamble. There had been nonviolent demonstrations for over a month, and he had written his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, which no one paid much attention to. It had not been published. He was about to withdraw.

There were ferocious arguments within the movement about using small children to demonstrate. Not just 15-year-olds or 12-year-olds, but 6-year-olds. They only had twenty people willing to face Birmingham jails. So on May 2, 1963, they had a thousand children march out of the church. And the next day they had another thousand, and that's when the police brought out the dogs and the fire hoses.

Those two days there were a tremendous watershed for nonviolence in the United States. There was an emotional reaction against the use of violence on these children, and it triggered sympathetic demonstrations across the country, forced President Kennedy to introduce the Civil Rights Bill, which changed the face of American politics and stimulated kindred movements. But what's most interesting is that the reaction went against the violence and in favor of the nonviolence of the children, who were swept down the street by the hoses and chased by the dogs on those two days.

Another story, a year and a month later, June 21, 1964. It was the first night of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. College students from all over the United States, who had been training in nonviolence, went to Mississippi, where black people were not permitted to vote. That night, three of them were kidnapped by the Klan--Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. A bunch of Klansmen took them on the side of the road and were preparing to kill them. A Klansman pulled out a gun and put a pistol to Schwerner's chest and said, "Are you the nigger-lovin' Jew?" And Schwerner said, "Sir, I know just how you feel." And those were his last words before the Klansman shot him.

The Klansmen couldn't forget those words. Almost a month later, two of them in widely separate incidents confessed to FBI agents the events of that night, and both of them said those were Schwerner's last words, and both times the agent said, "Are you sure? That's a very unlikely thing for somebody to say." And they both said, "Yes, I'll never forget that."

It had an enormous effect on the agents. And they asked people in the movement: Is this something that someone would say? And, of course, the people in the movement said, Yes, that's what nonviolent training is about. One is the discipline not to resist, not to strike back, and the other--"Sir, I know just how you feel"-- is the discipline to try to make a human connection with somebody, even the person that's about to kill you.

The heart of nonviolence is to discipline yourself and have faith in the other guy. Mickey Schwerner epitomized it. This was an evanescent moment because nonviolence began to dissolve even within the movement, but that's another story.

SUZANNA LESSARD: Jonathan, could you do a quick check of the times in which nonviolence actually prevailed?

SCHELL:

It was centrally involved in the defeat of the British Raj, with Gandhi leading the way. And the Soviet Union went under the waves with hardly any violence being used. And by the way, that included nonviolence at the top. One of the most astonishing things was Mikhail Gorbachev's willingness to let the Soviet Union go without unleashing the violence at his disposal.

And then, of course, the civil rights movement, and a whole string of democratic nonviolent revolutions at the end of the twentieth century, starting in Southern Europe in Greece, Spain, Portugal, jumping over to Asia, Philippines, South Korea.

So there really is a counter-story to the dominant narrative of the twentieth century--the shocking and unbelievable expansion of the use of violence. But this sort of subterranean stream of nonviolence was also present. The fall of the British Empire, the fall of the Soviet Empire--these are not the small change of history. These are serious events.

BRANCH:

The people suffering segregation in the South had no other weapons. They had no money. They didn't have much education. They were a tiny minority of the population, and only a tiny minority of that minority was involved in a nonviolent revolution. And yet they believed there was much power in it. It came out of the refuge of the church. The mass meetings there substituted for all the institutions that they really didn't have. They didn't have a newspaper. They didn't have a theater. They didn't have any deliberative structure whatsoever. They developed nonviolence at a very special moment in history.

Jonathan, how do nuclear weapons fit into the history of nonviolence?

SCHELL:

With nuclear weapons you had the ultimate self-defeat of violence. Not only were nuclear weapons going to blow us all up, but they couldn't even accomplish what violence actually had done. They could no longer get rid of a figure like Hitler, because if the attempt were made everybody would die. Violence, the so-called final arbiter, wasn't working anymore. And so you needed something else. Some other arbiter, some other court of judgment--not violence, not war--had to be brought into play.

And slowly, in Eastern Europe and in Russia itself and the other republics, people did reinvent a new version of what Gandhi had discovered back in September 11, 1906. And they found that by nonviolence they could actually bring down the great, big Soviet Union with the KGB and the Red Army and its nuclear weapons and all the rest.

Taylor, what was the connection between civil rights and the American South and the anti-Vietnam War movement?

BRANCH:

It's a cruelty of history that the epitome of the civil rights movement, the march from Selma to Montgomery, occurred at the same time the Vietnam War was starting. The first Marine units landed literally within hours of the crossing of Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965. So they were going on at the same time, and we make a mistake by making them separate stories. They're part of the same struggle about the nature of democratic citizenship and the role of violence in advancing or retarding democracy.

King struggled with it. He had just given his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, in which he said that the movement, the ten-year movement against segregation in the United States, showed that nonviolence was a tool that ought to be studied globally for application against the triple scourges of mankind racism, poverty and war, which he called violence of the flesh and violence of the spirit.

So he saw a country that was embracing dramatic changes in power relationships through nonviolence. And at the same time, the US government was saying we have to defend democracy with violence in South Vietnam.

It was a terrible dilemma for King because for the first time the movement had access to the corridors of power, to begin to get justice done. So most of the mainstream civil rights organizations were horrified that he wanted to speak out against the Vietnam War. He felt that he couldn't segregate the principles of nonviolence as a tool for change and a way of understanding America's role in the world. And that was a big struggle for him, and it changed him.

We still haven't absorbed the lessons of the 1960s, the blessings of nonviolence and the curse of violence. I think the civil rights movement offered us a way to advance democracy in the world, but we never think of that model. We're stuck on the Vietnam model.

SCHELL:

One of the connections here was that the Black Power movement was rising at that time, and King was pressed to give an answer in his speech against the war at Riverside Church in New York to the people who said, What about Vietnam? King said, "These Black Power people asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. The questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government."

Who is speaking that way today about the Iraq War? I just can't resist another quotation from King's speech: "We have destroyed the Vietnamese's most cherished institutions, the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only non-Communist revolutionary church, the Unified Buddhist Church. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men." Now, that's the way to talk against a war.

Taylor, why was it so much easier for LBJ to be courageous on civil rights than to be courageous about getting out of Vietnam?

BRANCH:

What you hear in the Oval Office conversations of Johnson with other people, particularly his old buddy Richard Russell, is, "I would give everything not to do this war. We're going to lose. We're on the wrong side. It's politically stupid. We'll never convince these Vietnamese to support us. It won't work militarily. It won't work politically. But if I don't do it, they'll call me a coward and they'll run me out of office. The American people will forgive you for anything but being weak."

What imprisons all of us is the atavistic feeling that the willingness to do violence is the ultimate measure of your commitment, that you're not really a patriot unless you're willing to do violence. Johnson didn't want to wage the war in Vietnam, but he was afraid not to be violent. He was afraid that he would be run out of office and everything else he wanted to do wouldn't work.

Martin Luther King would say to his people, "We in the heart of the nonviolent movement feel this ourselves. When the Birmingham church was bombed, we went up to President Kennedy and said, If you're really serious about justice here you'll send in the National Guard." Even the nonviolent movement at times would measure commitment by the willingness to commit forces of violence.

King never in any of his Vietnam speeches used the name Lyndon Johnson, never once. And everybody else was saying, you know, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" We were demonizing Johnson. So King said, "Everything that Johnson's doing is connected to our own human nature, and we cannot demonize even his commitment to democracy. We just have to say this is the wrong way to do it. And it's our war and it's our government, and we're responsible to fix it." That's a really, really high, difficult standard, but it's at the heart of nonviolence.

SCHELL:

The prison of American political life is that no matter how crazy a particular war is--and the Iraq War beats Vietnam in the matter of pointlessness and craziness--national leaders seem unable to raise their voices against it. The issue is reduced to the visceral question: Are you going to be somebody who hits back? If you're not, you're styled a wimp and a coward--you lost this country and that country, and you're all these names that are still thrown at people.

This syndrome has gotten worse, I think. Today the country is more militaristic than it was back in the days of Vietnam. There's more of a romance of the soldier--as if commitment can only be measured in military terms. And of course Gandhi's discovery at the Empire Theater was that there is in fact another kind of commitment--to a force, indeed, that can be more powerful than violence.

Taylor, it's very striking the timing with which Black Power arose to reject nonviolence.

BRANCH:

Diane Nash, the great pioneer of nonviolence from the sit-ins to the Selma march, rejected it and took up Black Power. She said, "If we've done all this through nonviolence, think what we could do if we were just willing to be urban guerrillas and knock over a few banks." And then she said, "Of course, ten years later I looked up and I hadn't knocked over any banks and I hadn't been a guerilla. I hadn't even been to the rifle range. But I had withdrawn from this painful, creative engagement with nonviolence and democracy behind a big smokescreen of noise."

That the Black Power movement comes right on top of the Six-Day War is another cruelty of this period. Stanley Levison, Dr. King's closest adviser, said just a few days after the Six-Day War, We're in a real pickle here because the architects of nonviolence theory, of the enlightenment of ethical culture, have always been Jewish, and the Jews are turning into hawks because of the Six-Day War. You know--Israel beat five Arab armies in six days, and muscular Judaism was born. And he said this is going to be a big crisis 'cause we're going to lose a lot of brainpower for nonviolence.

Is spirituality essential to nonviolence, and can it be translated into practical politics?

BRANCH:

Well, it certainly can be translated into practical politics. Gandhi and King showed that. Part of King's genius was that he spoke about religion and politics every day, yet never once on the record do I have an instance in which he was criticized for mixing church and state. And the reason for that is because he did it in such an ingenious way, drawing on the roots of a nonsectarian spirituality, which I call "equal souls," meaning that we all have equal souls, and if we all have equal souls, then we can pursue nonviolence and democracy. He could offer people a choice: if you're an atheist and you still believe in the promise of the American revolution, then I'm for you; if you're cynical about Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves, but you still believe in equal souls, you can come in that door, too.

King believed that all of our most affecting patriotic oratory had not a religious but a spiritual cast. He was calling on that, and I think it was part of his strength.

SCHELL:

Certainly the movements of the twentieth century offer a large array of examples of that. If you look at the nonviolent movements in Eastern Europe, such as the Solidarity movement in Poland, you'll find a religious component, but it wasn't a religious movement per se. Or take Vaclav Havel and the supporters of the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia. They were emphatically secular people who developed their secular approaches to nonviolence. There has always been a strong moral component in nonviolence, and maybe a spiritual component, but not necessarily a religious component.

Hannah Arendt wrote that power and violence are opposites. She refused to call the power that flows from a barrel of a gun political power. She thought political power grew out of exactly the sort of thing that happened in the Empire Theater, which is a sort of Tocquevillian civil association of people ready to fight without violence. Action in concert, she called it. Arendt foresaw that the Soviet Union's use of force in Eastern Europe, while successful in the short run, was weakening its power and that it might one day disappear, as it did.

Jonathan, you've written about the leaders who felt only burdened by their nuclear weapons and yet they were unable to disarm because of the resistance of political establishments to nonviolence. I wonder if you could just speak about that resistance.

SCHELL:

When you get into the details of the negotiations in international crises, like the Cuban missile crisis, you find that the strategic thinking goes out the window. Leaders on both sides--e.g., Kennedy and Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis--find their nuclear weapons are simply useless. It never occurs to them, for instance, to actually rattle the nuclear saber at each other in any of their private exchanges. It's only in a couple of public comments that they do it. In the so-called ex-com, the executive committee meetings, Kennedy is by far the biggest dove in the room. At one point he pulls aside Pierre Salinger and says, Do you think the people in that room know that if we make a mistake more than 250 million people are going to die?

BRANCH:

I have spent some time at the National War College, which invited me to come and talk about nonviolence. I am astonished by the level of sophistication in professional military officers about the relationship between violence and power. If I had to crystallize it in one phrase, I would say the dominant impression I got was that war destroys more but governs less, and that therefore military people are being asked to do things politically that they can't do.

So I think they have a much greater appreciation for nonviolence as something at the heart of politics. I was struck by their interest in nonviolence, by their historical perspective on the use of nonviolence.

One of them astonished me by putting this to the rest of the class: suppose a brigade commander ordered you to go to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and restore the student body to the state it was at in 1968. No women, no minorities, all men under state law. Do this as a military function. Now, how many people are you going to have to kill? How are you going to administer the army? How's it going to work in the long run? He brought people up short because we're accustomed to think that violence can accomplish something and settle it. But the military people say it's not that simple.

To me the lesson in this is that we tend to think of nonviolence as a very exotic and farfetched thing. Actually, nonviolence is at the heart of what democracy is. Every vote is nothing but a piece of nonviolence. Democracy is institutionalized nonviolence.

And if we could get our politicians to see that institutionalizing nonviolence is what democracy is about, votes rather than the management of force, we would be more of a light to the world. So this is a more practical, everyday subject than a lot of us think, and we have more allies than we realize.

SCHELL:

In Vietnam and now also again in Iraq it's absolutely clear--and military men today understand, even George Bush understands--that there's no military solution to the war, that there's only a political solution if there is a solution. The people there are going to sort it out according to their own political will. That is what will decide the thing in the end.

BRANCH:

One lesson of Vietnam that's haunted me is that a lot of people in the antiwar movement never took seriously the psychological and political problems of those prosecuting the war who wanted to get out. They demonized them. They would never deal with the political problem, which was that getting out means losing. And if you're not willing to share that burden in advance, you're not serious about the politics of getting out of the war. We ought to apply that lesson to Iraq and face the fact that we may have a disaster going in and a disaster coming out. Our job is to face the political reality that political leaders deal with.

I long to see an American politician who would go before the United Nations and say, "We're sorry for what we did in Iraq. We messed it up. We shifted goals. We said it was about weapons of mass destruction, then regime change, then democracy." Then maybe we could enlist the people in the world to try to figure out how to reduce the chances of disaster afterward. And then you need to consult the people of Iraq as though they're the bosses, because that's what democracy means. We could've done that right from the beginning.

That doesn't necessarily mean that a solution is possible, but it does mean that we take our own values seriously, and so far we haven't done that.

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