Gandhi’s shrewd insight that conflict offers an opportunity to rearrange the ingredients that produced it in the first place has yet to be fully appreciated. Yet as more and more groups and societies across the world are able to know of the successful use of nonviolent tools to achieve political goals, it is possible that universal recognition of the worth and practicality of settling conflict without the insertion of violence may also grow. If anything, the inclination is toward greater use of the technique of collective nonviolent action in the twenty-first century. This Web site is about the power and limits of nonviolent civil resistance through the eyes of one of its practitioner scholars.
“You can’t think that the civil rights movement was only Martin Luther King. It was a wide variety of people, black and white, young and old,” explained US civil rights leader Julian Bond.
Bond was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. For several years, he worked alongside activist Mary King, handling communications, which sometimes played a life-or-death role for the movement.
“Public understanding was crucial to our strategy,” King notes.
“Without national exposure and galvanising public opinion, how would the American people, including many white southerners, understand how the machinery of injustice was tyrannising black people in the South? We wanted a nationwide awakening, which, through massive disapproval and targeted pressure on the federal government, would weaken the structures of systemic racism that kept black people in a state of slavery without the chains.”
Bond has spent the last several decades working for civil rights, and has served as the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as a member of the senate in his home state of Georgia. King later served in the Carter administration, has written eloquent books on the social power of nonviolent civil resistance, and currently serves as a professor of peace and conflict studies in Costa Rica with the University for Peace.
During the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, a campaign to get more African Americans registered to vote in the state, Bond and King intensively sought to get out the news from major civil rights programmes in many of the retrograde state’s 82 counties. Some 1,000 volunteers from across the nation were recruited to aid those efforts, and they helped to register African American voters, taught in 38 “freedom schools”, built community centres, and organised a parallel political party that was not racially exclusive. My question is: 50 years later, what strides have been made, and what is still left undone?
Civil rights movement
For some, the election of the first African American president ushered in the so-called post-racial era in the United States. But anyone who walks across our towns and cities, who passes through the ghettoised neighbourhoods and schools where many African Americans still live, knows that this is not true. The problem is that people aren’t walking around cities any more. They zoom by in big cars on their way to post-racial gated communities, but they have forgotten what it means to walk in a city, to know its inhabitants and their plight.
“The civil rights movement today is different than the civil rights movement of yesteryear, unlike and alike at the same time. Different in the sense that in the 1960s, you had an army of younger people, and older people as well, fighting in rural Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and other states, trying to fight for constitutional rights that black people living there did not possess.”
“And these rights were won – the right to register to vote, the right to go to particular schools, and the right to use public accommodations. Yet they weren’t won completely. There’s still much more to be done. And it’s the finishing of the earlier work that we’re undertaking now. The difference is we don’t have this same army of people doing it today as we did then, and we badly need to have more people saying, ‘Sign me up, let me spend a week, or two weeks, or a month or longer at this work.’ A modern-day Freedom Summer needs to be undertaken.”
It is time for citizens to take a collective look at the nation and at the way race continues to divide us. We can do this thoughtfully, in conversation, and full of hope, but the point is that the work that was started 50 years ago must continue.
For those interested in the continued work of justice, King advises that:
“It’s extremely important that people come into social movements for something larger than themselves. The sense that you are part of something that has much more at stake than yourself or your own involvement is one of the secrets of why nonviolent action movements in the last 100 years have confronted the greatest powers of their times, some of them extremely heavily armed, and have been able to win. I have tried to remain faithful to the larger purposes of the civil rights movement, which meant a society grounded in justice.”
Bond and King have lived their lives in service to the ideals of the movement.
If Bond and King are right, the US has turned away from the work of equality: An October 2012 Supreme Court decision struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Recent political and social events prove that there is no reason to believe that racism is dead. There are the sensational incidents of racism such as when Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded saying he didn’t want black people at his games. And then there are the daily injustices like being denied housing, as was reported in a recent episode of This American Life on racial profiling in the housing market.
A post-racial society?
If anything, racism has become such a pervasive element of society that many no longer recognise it. Many of us look out at a sea of white faces on TV and in newspapers, and we think they are diverse. Bond argues: “We are not in a post-racial society. We are in a racist society, and that racism is evident every place you go and almost every time you pick up a newspaper. You can see it. Every time you look at a TV, there it is for you. To believe that this era has passed is nonsense.”
Bond asks why and how the US has reached a place in which it is almost impossible to have a conversation about race in the country.
His answer is that at some point, “we as US citizens ceased being engaged and stopped doing the work, stopped taking part in the act of dialogue that began during the civil rights movement”.
Indeed, our young people are too strapped with college debt to set their careers aside and take on volunteer work as Bond and King did.
According to a recent Washington Post article we now face the “largest pile of debt burdening Americans […] $1 trillion in student loan debt, more than all the credit card debt in the United States”. A society that doesn’t allow its youth and dreamers to take on the hard work of societal change is impoverished in ways that cannot be quantified.
Bond sees the anniversary of Freedom Summer as a call to a new generation of activists: “This should be a collective experience. It should be a remembrance of people of all races and colours struggling both together and separately to fight against racism. There were enormous victories won 50 years ago, so we can’t play them down. But not enough was done. Not enough effort was made. We need to find young people who will take our places and continue.”
What is truly powerful about the idea of a modern day Freedom Summer is that we know that movements have a domino effect. For King:
“The civil rights movement, and, in many ways SNCC in particular, were tinder for a national mobilisation to end the war in Vietnam. This contributed to the last push for ending European colonialism. They also helped to spark the environmental movement and the modern women’s liberation movement. This is not to say that there were no other forces at work. It is, rather, that social movements have a tremendously potentiating effect.”
On the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, we need to remember what was accomplished, but also that the job was left unfinished. Young and old alike, we need to re-engage in the politics and poetics of justice, to begin walking in our cities again to see where and how our brothers and sisters live, to remember what it means to work together for equality.
Alice Driver is a writer who explores issues of gender, women’s rights, and human rights with a focus on Mexico.
Follow her on Twitter: @
This blog post by Alice L. Driver was originally published by al Jazeera.
The Latest News from Mary
On December 5th, 2012, Mary gave a public lecture in Ludlow, England, about new developments related to building peace. She was invited to give the 2012 Olivier Memorial Peace Lecture.
The following day, Mary spoke to students at Ludlow College about the U.S. civil rights movement.
You can read more about the event on The Ludlow Quaker Meeting House’s website. You can also download an abridged version of Mary’s lecture here.
Mary King delivered this lecture, “Behind the Arab Awakening: Dynamics of Civil Resistance”, on Monday, January 23, 2012 at Green Templeton College, Oxford in conjunction the Centre for International Studies at Oxford. Mary is a Rothermere American Institute Fellow at the University of Oxford.
Andrew Marr discusses “revolution” with the Egyptian writer and blogger, Wael Ghonim; Paul Mason, economics journalist and author; and Mary King, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University for Peace (an affiliate of the UN)and Rothermere American Institute Fellow at the University of Oxford.
Mary was one of seven Fellows honored by Aberystwyth University during the 2011 Graduation Ceremonies. The title of Fellow is awarded to honor distinguished people who have a close association with Aberystwyth University or who have made an outstanding contribution to professional or public life in Wales. Mary, a former Aberystwyth University student, was presented by Professor Michael Foley, Head of the Department of International Politics, at 11.00 AM on July 13.
The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) announced the winners of the James Lawson Award for Nonviolent Achievement at Tufts University on June 22, 2011. The following is excerpted from the official ICNC announcement:
The first winners of the award are: Mary King, Ghada Shahbender, Lhadon Tethong, and Nada Alwadi. Jack DuVall, president of ICNC, introduced the winners, and Rev. James Lawson handed out the awards. Lawson was one of the great strategists of the civil rights movement, best known for his role in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. 50 years ago to the day, he was taking part in the Freedom Rides. By then he had already been a conscientious objector during the Korean War and traveled to India to study Gandhian nonviolence.
Mary King, who worked with Lawson and SNCC in the civil rights movement, was honored not just for her activism but for her “great intellect and scholarship,” as Jack DuVall put it. “You have no idea how special this is!” she said, embracing her onetime teacher.
The award itself is inscribed, The James Lawson Award, presented to Mary Elizabeth King, In recognition of her role as an educator whose teaching and research has generated interest, passion, and new thinking about the history, theory and strategies of nonviolent conflict.
On May 8, 2011 Mary King delivered the keynote address at the commencement ceremony for the Ohio Wesleyan University Class of 2011. Mary’s address reminded the audience of the power they have to help bring about concrete change in the world, as she did after being graduated from OWU in 1962. Mary went on to encourage the graduating class to bring meaning to their lives by making a difference in the world. Selected excerpts of Mary’s address are included below; you can watch and listen to the address in its entirety online.
. . .
I left Ohio Wesleyan from the very position that you are in today, to join the civil rights movement. It was thanks to Miriam Willey and B. A. Jones that I was able to make my way into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced snick). No yellow-pages listing said phone here to put yourself on the line. I needed the help of these two fine Ohio Wesleyan educators to make this transition to SNCC, which has recently been called by historian Peniel Joseph the most significant organization in post-World War II America. My experiences working at the heart of this epochal movement more than any others define my life.
In Atlanta and Mississippi, my job was to tell the stories that southern white news media and editors routinely ignored. To them, deaths of black people or atrocities against them were not deemed newsworthy. Working with Julian Bond in a tiny office, with one manual typewriter and telephone apiece, we built an alternative media system to break the news. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Getting a reporter to a jail, or covering an arrest, could save lives—including our own.
We used the most advanced technological methods available, but we had nearly nothing in print to teach us how to use nonviolent methods to fight for equal rights. Several professionals, who had spent time in India with participants in the independence struggles on the sub-continent, returned to the United States with personal knowledge and Gandhi’s writings. Bringing tangible wisdom from East to West, they shared it by word of mouth in hundreds of workshops or mass meetings in churches. Today, it is much easier to learn nonviolent civil resistance. The works of the scholar Gene Sharp have been translated into nearly forty languages.
Numerous human rights now considered “universal” had first to be fought for through nonviolent struggles. Only later were they codified. In the 20th century, people’s movements secured basic human rights for much of the world’s population, through women’s suffrage, anti-colonial, civil rights, and democracy movements that intentionally rejected the use of violence as the means to an end.
This form of struggle was used to obtain collective bargaining and the right of laborers to organize. Without it we might still have a 7-day work week. It enabled people to defy foreign occupations and coups d’état, and to resist genocide. Most of Denmark’s Jews were saved from death by the Nazis because of a national nonviolent mobilization, in which the entire society united as one. Ordinary persons have changed their societies through action methods deliberately chosen because they do not accomplish their goals through harm, injury, or threat of physical assault. Often with meager resources, relying on themselves, they were able to make their situation more just without creating new forms of oppression.
. . .
The frequency with which citizen groups turn to civil resistance is increasing, and our comprehension of how it is effective is accelerating. The fact that basic works and case studies by foremost scholars and theoreticians are available for download in dozens of languages partly explains the success of recent democracy movements North Africa and the Mid-East.
When the elections, political parties, parliamentary action, or even lobbying and interest groups of institutionalized politics fail, people can exercise their inherent political power through nonviolent collective actions. Now, for the first time, violent resistance as the world’s automatic, default method for challenging grievances and rights-based struggles in the 21st century has a chance to be eclipsed by strategic employment of nonviolent action. It can be a practical substitute for armed struggle and guerrilla warfare, utilized in place of violent strategies, including civil war, rioting, terrorism, and conventional warfare. Your analytical skills let you understand how important these developments are.
Empirical evidence and hard data now show that countries that experience bottom-up, grass-roots nonviolent struggle are more likely to sustain human rights and democracy once established than when violence has been used. Scholars have shown that nonviolent movements succeed more often than violent insurrections.
Perhaps the most remarkable transnational movement of the modern age was the women’s suffrage movement in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Yet more remained to be done. In the 1960s, I was a co-author, along with Casey Hayden, of a document called “Sex and Caste,” which arose from discussions among women working in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Movements often morph, shifting their targets from one issue to another as they succeed. Be prepared for transformation! Historians now believe that second-wave feminism was sparked by our “Sex and Caste.” Calling it second-wave feminism is a tribute, honoring an earlier wave of women’s rights action.
One secret to gratification in life is to choose something much larger than you yourself in which to be involved, either full time or as a volunteer. Every Returned Peace Corps Volunteer I’ve met has told me that he or she gained more from their two years of service than they were able to give. Some fields and professions are highly fulfilling and enriching in a similar way. Over the years, teachers have said to me that they wished there was a civil rights movement that they could join, because they would like some form of activism. Don’t you realize, I respond, teaching is a form of activism!
Cast your eyes across the world stage. Women’s rights is becoming a central moral issue of the twenty-first century. Gender affects virtually all of human life. Over thirty years, the study of gender has emerged as a critical requirement for building peace. It is now widely understood that the socialization of men and women is crucial to the building of more peaceable societies.
The evidence is solid that the education and status of women stabilizes and uplifts the whole of societies — for men, children, and women. Uplift of women and their increased participation in public policy is now perceived as fundamental to economic growth, health status, reducing poverty, sustaining the environment, and consolidating democracy in societies long bowed down by authoritarianism and tyranny. The data are irrefutable.
Yet formidable social and cultural factors prevent policies and action based on scientific evidence of wide-ranging benefits for everyone from educating women and girls. Perhaps you can be instrumental in working on this. Both men and women are tackling these issues in Africa. Colleagues of mine in the University for Peace and its Africa Programme are leading the way. They never forget that approximately 1.5 billion women and girls in the world have no rights: they are sold into marriage, in forced marriages, surgically mutilated, and experience many forms of violence, some of it involving systematic trafficking.
. . .
Mary also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from OWU during the 2011 commencement ceremony, and is featured in the Spring 2011 Issue of Ohio Wesleyan Magazine.
Mary was presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from her Alma Mater, Ohio Wesleyan University; the presentation was made during the 2011 commencement ceremony, where Mary also delivered the keynote address.
Honorary degree recipients are nominated by OWU faculty and members of the Board of Trustees, and ultimately selected by the Trustee-Faculty Committee on Honorary Degrees. Recipients must be eminent in their respective fields and should reflect in a significant manner, the highest ideals and character of Ohio Wesleyan’s academic and human traditions.
Previous OWU honorary degree recipients include: Simon Wiesenthal, Arthur Ashe, Jr., Ezra Vogel, William Cohen, Ernest Boyer, Chinua Achebe, Vera Rubin, Sherwood Rowland, Randall Robinson, Ali Mazrui, Franklin Littell, Paul Farmer, Byron Pitts, John Kenneth Galbraith.
The Tavis Smiley Show aired a panel discussion Where Do We Go From Here? on Public Radio International on Friday, July 23, 2010.
Click the play button above to listen to a brief excerpt, Mary’s remarks, from the discussion moderated by Tavis Smiley, which featured Clayborne Carson, Dorothy Cotton, Vincent Harding, Mary King, Eric Mann, Michael Nagler, and Kiran Bir Sethi. The discussion took place at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.
On April 15–18, 2010, some 1,200 individuals gathered at Shaw University, Raleigh, NC, in a conference to explore the lasting impact of the southern student sit-ins that started in Greensboro, on February 1, 1960. The sit-ins were one among dozens of specific nonviolent methods utilized during the decade-long U.S. civil rights movement. The conference honored the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pron. snick) in April 1960 at Shaw University, where SNCC’s senior adviser Ella Baker had convened the leaders from the various student sit-in movements spread across the South. SNCC emerged from that meeting literally to coordinate the local movements. Mary King worked for SNCC for four years.