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.

I plan to write a longer paper that will use the example of the Civil Rights Movement as the basis for suggesting a strategy for resisting evil without expanding evil. In this one moment in time, principled nonviolent action bore tremendous, if only partially realized, fruitfulness.

In the paper’s first section, I will look at the story of the Civil Rights Movement, summarizing key elements in the Movement’s evolution, its successes, and its ultimate disintegration. The second section will identify ways that nonviolence played a role in the successes that the Movement did achieve. And the third section will briefly suggest enduring lessons that the Civil Rights Movement has for present day efforts for social change.

Ironically, the Civil Rights Movement that transformed the U.S. with its nonviolence during the 1950s and 1960s received a major impetus from World War II. World War II as nothing before brought to the surface the terrible contradictions of American society—both the ideals of democracy that provided the rhetorical basis for war appeals and the practices of demoralizing racial discrimination. Many returning African-American soldiers discovered the bitter truth that the country would not honor their sacrifices but instead revert back to the Jim Crow status quo. Frustrations from these experiences led many African-American veterans to vow to work for changes.

A very different source of motivation came from the experience of a handful of African American pacifists as draft resisters and conscientious objectors. Two of these, Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, became important Civil Rights leaders. Farmer was a founder of the Congress on Racial Equality in 1942, a ministry of the Fellowship of Reconcilition. At this time, Farmer wrote a key essay expressing the link between nonviolence and civil rights. Farmer saw conscientious objection, not war, as the model for achieving racial justice. The “Gandhian pattern” was the key. The practice of “non-cooperation,” so familiar to conscientious objectors, now had to take on broader significance. Pacifists’ experience in opposing the war left them uniquely equipped to lead the battle for racial equality.

By the mid-1950s, several other important players in the evolution of the Movement in the direction of activist nonviolence emerged. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a member of the NAACP trained in nonviolent techniques at the Highlander School, set off a crucial event, the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that integrated Montgomery’s bus system and provided a huge shot in the arm to the movement. Also in Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., became the leader of the boycott movement and ultimately the leader of the entire (highly decentralized) Civil Rights Movement.

At this same time, a young Methodist minister and recent draft resister, James Lawson began a mission term in India with the intent of learning Gandhianism firsthand and returning to the U.S. and joining the Civil Rights Movement. Shortly after Lawson’s return, he met King, who recruited him to move to Nashville and organize. Closely adhering to Gandhian techniques, Lawson led a successful movement to integrate Nashville’s lunch counters.

Perhaps just as importantly, Lawson recruited and mentored extraordinary young adults who themselves became major leaders in the Movement as Gandhians—including James Bevel, Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Bernard Lafayette.

The American Civil Rights Movement in the decade between the 1955 Montgomery action and the passing the Voting Rights Act in 1965 was mainly characterized by practical (if not always ideological) nonviolence. King provided a public articulation of the practical and (increasingly as his own convictions deepened) philosophical bases for nonviolence that uncounted activists put into practice.

By the time of King’s murder in 1968, the Civil Rights movement as an expression of transformative nonviolence had lost its momentum. It agenda has remained unfulfilled to a large extent—witness the disparity in the United States today in wealth between whites and blacks; witness also the evolution of the American criminal justice system into a powerful tool of the disenfranchisement of wide swaths of the African American community. However, the achievements of this movement remain of utmost importance.

Those achievements may be seen as a direct outworking of the nonviolent activism embodied by an enormously creative and dedicated generation of activists. They provide a template for on-going action.

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3 thoughts on “Pacifism and the Civil Rights Movement

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