Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery

Ted Grimsrud—September 4, 2019

A new book challenges many of my assumptions about the role of violence and nonviolence in resistance to white supremacy and enslavement in American history. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian who teaches at Wellesley College, in Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019) argues for the centrality of necessary violence in the work of resisting and ending slavery. Though she alludes only briefly to the more recent Civil Rights Movement, she seems to believe that violence was a necessary part of the positive gains made in the 1950s and 1960s as well.

An interesting book

I found this book quite interesting—which, unfortunately, is a comment I make only partly as a compliment. One of Carter Jackson’s achievements that I fully affirm is how she draws attention to the numerous black advocates for abolition in the several decades prior to the Civil War. All too often, the story of the abolitionist movement has focused almost exclusively on the white leaders with the addition of Frederick Douglass. Carter Jackson helps us see how vital and widespread the movement among black activists in the North actually was.

As well, Carter Jackson provides an insightful account of the evolution of the abolitionist movement in face of the extraordinary intransigence of white supremacists in the South and the North. At the beginning of the William Lloyd Garrison-led “formal” abolitionist movement in the early 1830s, the emphasis was on “moral suasion” that was self-consciously opposed to the use of violence to effect liberation for the enslaved. Over the following several decades, as the regime of enslavement became more entrenched—with the deep-seated collaboration of Congress, various pro-slavery presidents, and the Supreme Court—those committed to its eradication became increasingly impatient with the emphasis only on “suasion.” Belief in the necessity of violence for the liberation of the enslaved became increasingly widespread.

However, I do not believe that Carter Jackson has successfully made the case for her more wide-ranging claims (albeit usually only implicitly stated) that violence was indeed necessary, then and ever since, for achieving both liberation from slavery and social equality. In her epilogue she tellingly quotes Cynthia Washington of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from the 1960s, “I was never a true believer in nonviolence.” Washington “carried a handgun in her bag. And though she never fired it, she made it clear that she was willing to do so” (p. 160). Carter Jackson clearly sees Washington’s views on nonviolence as reflecting her own—that is, she doesn’t really give nonviolence a chance. Continue reading “Is violence necessary to win freedom? The resistance to American slavery”

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. Continue reading “Pacifism in America, part four: Pacifism in the Civil Rights Movement”