Pacifism and the Civil Rights Movement

Ted Grimsrud—March 13, 2011

Many say that a pillar of human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life—hence, we put efforts into health care, education, sanitation, and agriculture. Powerfully countering this momentum toward enhancing life, warfare has treated human life as expendable, as do continually expanding efforts to enhance war-making capabilities. The best and most creative resources of western civilization have focused on killing not on enhancing life.

In the words of historian Joseph Kip Kosek in his book, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy: “the problem of the twentieth century was the problem of violence. It was not, as such, Fascism, Communism, economic inequality, or the color line, though all of these were deeply implicated. It was, above all, the fact of human beings killing one another with extraordinary ferocity and effectiveness.”

The extraordinary resources that the United States devoted to resisting fascism and communism did not yield commensurate human well-being. Those efforts did not recognize the problem of violence as fundamental. By using violence to counter these ideologies, the U.S. itself descended toward self-destruction—a descent now continuing apace in our response to “terrorism.”

One issue Kosek mentions, “the color line,” provides a counter-example. The American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in important respects, did keep the problem of violence at the forefront and challenged a devastating social problem in light of that problem. By refusing to subordinate the problem of violence to some other problem, for a brief but extraordinarily fruitful moment, the Civil Rights Movement made enormous progress in genuine social transformation.

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