Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement

Ted Grimsrud—June 7, 2019

The 20th century has accurately been called the century of total war. The massive death and destruction visited upon the people of the world especially in the first half of that century (with the constant threat of exponentially more death and destruction with the possibility of nuclear war) obliterated the basic human belief in the preciousness of life. One of the pillars of authentic human civilization is organizing society in light of the belief in the preciousness of life. That is why we put so many resources into, for example, healthcare, education, sanitation, and agriculture. We seek to make it possible for human life to thrive.

Powerfully countering all this momentum toward enhancing life, war and the preparation for war treats human life as shockingly expendable. The best and most creative resources of western civilization are focused on killing, not on enhancing life. Yet we still face profound injustices. One of the major justifications for war is the assertion that war is necessary as a means to resist evil. Are there alternative ways to resist evil without relying on violence?

As historian Joseph Kip Kosek wrote, “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”(Joseph Kip Kosek, Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy, 5).

The massive resources the United States devoted to resisting fascism and communism in World War II did in fact not result in enhanced human wellbeing. Those efforts did not recognize as fundamental the profound problem of violence. By using violence to counter those twin ideologies over the past seventy years, the U.S. found itself on a rapid descent toward militaristic self-destruction. We do have one example, though, of significant progress in overcoming injustice without extreme violence.

The Civil Rights Movement

The American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in important respects, reflected an attempt to keep the problem of violence at the forefront and to challenge a devastating social problem in light of the centrality of the problem of violence. By refusing to subordinate the problem of violence to some other problem, for a brief but extraordinarily fruitful moment, the American Civil Rights movement actually made enormous progress in genuine social transformation.

This progress had roots in the peace movement that arose in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s and found itself reduced to a tiny remnant by the end of World War II. Those few who retained their strong opposition to warfare and other types of inter-human violence did not disappear however. For one thing, the War had left the much of the world in tatters. The opportunities for service work to meet the survival and self-determination needs of countless people were endless. These opportunities provided the context for the expansion of peace church agencies such as the American Friends Service Committee and Mennonite Central Committee. As well, the conclusion of the War in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with previously unimagined destructive power shocked many who had doubts about the moral validity of warfare. The great powers then responded to the development of nuclear weaponry by moving into a competitive “Arms Race” instead of developing structures that would enhance possibilities for peaceful coexistence. This development galvanized antiwar sentiment into various anti-nuclear disarmament movements.

The American entry into World War II, justified as it was by appeal to ideals such as the Four Freedoms, contained a powerful irony. The American moral basis for committing to this total war existed alongside virulent racism that shaped life across the United States. An earlier American exercise in total war allegedly for the sake of social justice (the Civil War) had failed to bring genuine freedom and self-determination to African American people. The injustices that remained after the Civil War fueled social movements devoted to overcoming American racism.

These movements made only halting progress through the early decades of the twentieth century, with minimal impact on the broader society. The emergence of the creative practice of Mohandas Gandhi in resisting the British in India raised new possibilities for effective nonviolent resistance. Several leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement, most notably Howard Thurman of Howard University and Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, recognized potential in Gandhi’s approach for the American Civil Rights Movement. Thurman visited Gandhi in the 1930s and began to advocate for nonviolent activism in America, though not yet with widespread support.

During the War, African Americans in the U.S. received mixed messages. Many were drafted into the military and were expected to fight in the War. Arms industries also called upon African Americans for factory work. In both cases racism minimized opportunities for advancement and also led to many incidents of discriminatory violence. Not a few African Americans noted the contradictions as they devoted time and energy and risked their lives for the sake of a country that continued to treat them as second-class citizens. In general, returning soldiers found themselves once again bitterly mistreated, especially in the segregationist South.

Bayard Rustin was a different kind of African American World War II veteran (see Jervis Anderson, Bayard Rustin: Troubles I’ve Seen, A Biography and John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin). As a Quaker, he philosophically opposed war and spent several of the war years imprisoned as a draft resister. In 1941, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) hired him as a staff person, along with a fellow African American pacifist James Farmer. Farmer helped found the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942, a ministry of the FOR, and Rustin joined with him shortly thereafter.

Farmer published an important essay in 1942 that connected nonviolence with work for racial justice. He discussed two key themes related to ending racism while avoiding a bloodbath in the U.S.: universalism and a commitment to nonviolent methods. Christian pacifists, in Farmer’s words, affirmed “the Judeo-Christian faith in the universal community, the world fellowship, the unity of the human family.” War violates this fellowship, acting as a kind of fratricide—in a parallel way, racism also violates human fellowship.

Conscientious objection to war, not service in the military, provided Farmer’s model for winning the struggle versus racism. He linked opposition to war with a positive appropriation of Gandhian approaches to exercising power. Farmer wrote: “What we must not fail to see is that conscience should imply not only refusal to participate in war, but also, so far as is humanly possible, refusal to participate in, and cooperate with, all those social practices which wreak havoc with personality and despoil the human community.” Farmer insisted on an inextricable link between active opposition to war and to racism. He believed that COs’ opposition to the War would prepare them for on-going civil rights activism.

Nonviolence as a strategy for social change

CORE and other groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), emphasized training in nonviolent techniques. In 1955, a longtime Civil Rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, became a catalyst for a major step ahead for the movement’s nonviolent activism. After a tiring workday on December 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a segregated city bus. She was arrested, an event that triggered a powerful challenge the system—a boycott of the Montgomery bus system (see Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change).

A young Baptist pastor, newly arrived to Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., became a boycott leader and then a national spokesperson for the movement and, with several colleagues, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) to further the work of desegregation. In 1955, though, King had not yet personally fully embraced nonviolence as a principled commitment, he well understood that a Civil Rights movement, to be effective in the United States, would not be able to rely on violence. Nonviolence thus became a central part of his message and the broader message of SCLC. In a November 1956 speech that announced the successful end of the bus boycott, King asserted the need for the movement to remain nonviolent: “Now I’m not asking you to be a coward. If cowardice was the [only] alternative to violence, I’d say to you tonight, use violence. Cowardice is as evil as violence. What I’m saying to you this evening is that you can be courageous and yet nonviolent.”

As it turned out, many African-American church leaders were not ready to embrace King’s movement (see Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963). In fact, some bitterly opposed him. While both the centrality of his Christian convictions and his social location led King for the rest of his life to work within the church, he in time realized that his hopes for a unified and galvanized church working for racial justice were not going to be fulfilled.

By the late 1950s, King knew that the movement needed more concrete strategies for moving the work ahead. However, he wasn’t sure how to make this happen. The answer to the Civil Rights movement’s dilemma—how to find concrete ways to expand the movement and bring about direct change—came almost as an accident. Leaders and activists such as Bayard Rustin and James Farmer had deep roots in the antiwar community that had opposed World War II. Older educators such as Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays had strong Gandhian tendencies. And King himself, along with some of his close colleagues, increasingly moved towards a principled pacifism. However, the movement as a whole had yet to find a broadly effective way to proceed on a Gandhian path.

Then, in 1957, King met a young Methodist pastor, James Lawson, who provided needed leadership to help the movement take crucial steps forward. Lawson brought some distinctive perspectives to his work (see David Halberstam, The Children). He had grown up in the North in the largely white United Methodist Church, the son of a minister. From an early age, he had committed himself to be a pacifist and to Civil Rights work. While he was in college, Lawson became convinced of a moral link between segregationist laws and the laws that enforced the military draft.

These convictions led Lawson to refuse to cooperate with the draft, even though he was eligible to receive a ministerial exemption. He spent a year in federal prison during the Korean War as a draft resister. He became friends with several FOR leaders active in Civil Rights work such as A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and Glenn Smiley. He also became deeply attracted to Gandhian philosophy, and upon his release from prison spent a couple of years in India with a Methodist mission program and studied the Gandhian movement firsthand.

Martin Luther King was intrigued by Lawson’s training and commitment, and convinced Lawson to move to Nashville. The FOR hired Lawson as a fieldworker. He also enrolled as one of the first African American students at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He recruited college students to come together for a campaign to integrate Nashville (see Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict). Under Lawson’s guidance, the Nashville campaign proceeded carefully and meticulously. A period of thorough training prepared dozens of activists to initiate a series of sit-ins intended to integrate lunch counters in downtown Nashville.

The desegregation campaign met with great success. It followed the rules of a Gandhian satyagraha campaign to the letter. The campaign gained national attention and, because of the self-discipline of the activists, gathered wide support. The downtown businesses accepted integration at the lunch counters, and the willingness to integrate spread across most of the city.

Several of the college students who joined in this campaign became significant leaders in the broader Civil Rights movement, taking with them deep commitments to nonviolence. James Bevel became an important colleague of Martin Luther King and played a major role in several of the crucial events where King’s impact fostered key advances. Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Bernard Lafayette also had influential roles (see John Lewis, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement).

Pushing the confrontations further

About the same time as the Nashville campaign’s successes, a number of activists linked with CORE, decided to push the confrontations further to the South—that is, further into the heart of segregationism. They organized a mixed-race group that would travel into the Deep South via the interstate bus system; they called this action a “freedom ride” (see Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice). They began in Washington, DC. When they got to Alabama, strong resistance to their actions led to overt violence. The bus they rode on was stopped and burnt and several of the activists were severely beaten. The level of violence surpassed the expectations of the activists and they abandoned their action.

However, rather than let the momentum die, a number of the activists who had served in the Nashville campaign led an attempt at a second freedom ride in May 1961. Again, the bus drove into a maelstrom of hostility and violence. This time, though, with greater numbers, a clearer sense of what to expect, and a stronger support structure, the freedom riders sustained their action. John Lewis nearly lost his life due to a beating, and several others also suffered severe injuries. But the ride continued into Mississippi, where the activists were arrested and sent to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. By this time, the riders had gained national attention.

Challenged by the sit-in movement, which also had a strong presence in Greensboro, North Carolina, and elsewhere, the SCLC provided funding in 1960 to begin a new organization that would center its efforts on providing support for younger activists. This organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in its early years proved extraordinarily effective in embodying Gandhian nonviolence in ways that brought genuine change (see Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s).

SNCC activists drew heavily on the teaching of James Lawson and other advocates of nonviolent direct action. Several of the Nashville activists, most notably John Lewis, provided leadership for the SNCC actions. Along with public actions such as the freedom rides and mass demonstrations in cities such as Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, SNCC also undertook significant (and highly dangerous) education and voting registration campaigns in rural areas in Mississippi, Alabama, and other southern states.

The role of nonviolence

The American Civil Rights movement in the decade between Rosa Parks’s 1955 Montgomery action that initiated the bus boycott and the passing the Voting Rights Act in the U.S. Congress in 1965 had a practical (if not always principled) commitment to nonviolence. This nonviolence had important roots in the anti-World War II communities (seen in the influence of A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer as well as the inspiration James Lawson received from his draft-resisting predecessors). Martin Luther King, Jr., provided a public articulation of the practical and (increasingly as his own convictions deepened) philosophical bases for nonviolence (see Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965 and Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968; also Greg Moses, Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Philosophy of Nonviolence and Michael J. Nojeim, Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance).

The reaction to the Civil Rights Movement by supporters of segregation was breathtaking in its violence, reaching its apex in the murder of King himself in 1968. The Civil Rights campaigns retained their nonviolent, non-retaliatory practices in face of the extreme violence of the defenders of the racist status quo. Such steadfastness pushed legislators and public opinion in general toward a growing willingness to include racial minorities as full participants in the nation’s common life. This phase of the Civil Rights movement culminated in new federal legislation and willingness of the government to enforce the legislation.

As it turned out, though, the country could only partially accept the gifts offered it by the Civil Rights Movement. When, under King’s leadership, the Movement extended its activism to the North, it met with shocking resistance. President Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to social justice in the United States, unprecedented in relation to any other American president before or since, ran aground in face of his simultaneous commitment to the disastrous war in Southeast Asia. The Civil Rights Movement itself could not sustain its commitment to nonviolence.

King himself grew ever more committed to principled nonviolence, leading eventually to his costly but deeply consistent critique of the American war on Vietnam. However, other committed pacifists such as James Lawson and John Lewis were pushed to the margins of the Movement by those who did not share this commitment. The ongoing violent intransigence of those opposed to the Civil Rights agenda—certainly in the South but also in the North—strengthened arguments of those within the movement who opposed nonviolence.

By the time of King’s murder in 1968, the Civil Rights Movement as an expression of transformative nonviolence had lost its momentum. Its 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 (see James Logan, Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness). However, the achievements of this movement remain of utmost importance. And those achievements may be seen as a direct outworking of nonviolent activism embodied by an enormously creative and dedicated generation of activists.

[This post is part of a series of posts on the history of pacifism in the United States adapted from the third section (“Alternatives”) of Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Cascade Books, 2014). Here is a list of the posts in the series:

  1. The roots of war resistance
  2. Pacifism in face of the “good war”
  3. Making peace through service
  4. The role of pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement
  5. Opposing nukes and the Vietnam War
  6. Civil society and peacebuilding
  7. A pacifist agenda

Check out this link for more on that book: The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters.]

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