Mary King 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.

Mary's Blog

Nonviolent conflict modeled by Gandhi could be just as effective today

13 November, 2014

Update Jan 7, 2015:
Mary’s posting in the U.S. National Catholic Reporter (reproduced below) has had some play. It responded to claims made by Rabbi A. James Rudin (the American Jewish Committee’s senior inter-religious adviser) that Gandhi’s form of nonviolent action is rendered ineffective in response to the actions of the Islamic State and like atrocities. In her response, “Nonviolent conflict modeled by Gandhi could be just as effective today,” she uses examples from Gandhi’s own time (the Nazi occupation) and subsequently (the 1987 Intifada).

Original Post:
In the decades since the death of Mohandas Gandhi and of his student and successor in the art of nonviolent struggle, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the understanding of how civil resistance can be effective has expanded. New ideas and practices have emerged in societies that Gandhi could not have foreseen as venues for people’s movements, targeting forms of oppression that he had not encountered and which have been able to succeed against brutal regimes and dictators. The social science of nonviolent action has also deepened, showing among other findings that while violent campaigns have achieved their goals in roughly one-quarter of all cases, civil resistance has since 1900 succeeded in more than half of all such campaigns.

So the question posed by Rabbi A. James Rudin — whether “Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance” could be used to oppose Islamic State atrocities — sidesteps the greater reality that today, it would not be Gandhi’s notions, but a more advanced form of nonviolent conflict, burnished by the collective experience of hundreds of social movements in Gandhi’s wake worldwide, which were predicated in no small part on his experiments and practices.

One of the most common and misleading criticisms of Gandhi that Rudin invokes is when he says that Gandhi was either “naïve” to believe that nonviolent action could work against the Nazis or was indifferent to their atrocities. Self-educated and relying on newspapers for foreign news, Gandhi was doubtless not well briefed on the implications of Hitler’s rise. Yet as the French scholar Jacques Sémelin documents in his classic study Unarmed Against Hitler, effective nonviolent resistance in nations under Nazi occupation was able to thwart some of Hitler’s aims.

Sémelin cites civil resistance to the Nazis by teachers and church leaders in Norway; medical doctors in Holland; scholars and clergy in Poland; Czech and Slovak students and scholars; industrial strikes by laborers and miners in Belgium and France; and notably in Berlin, by the wives of Jewish men who had been taken to the death camps but were returned. All of this helped slow down and undermine the German war effort.

Gandhi may have anticipated this when he said before World War II that facing nonviolent resistance would be a “novel experience” for Hitler. Indeed, the Führer was known to be furious about the impact of the Danish resistance in particular, in which Denmark’s Jews were saved. Neither he nor his commanders in Denmark knew how to deal with it without alienating and rousing the whole country, which they managed to do anyway.

It is important to emphasize that even Gandhi’s approach to nonviolent action did not rest on passive resistance (by 1908, he had essentially rejected this term), but on undermining the legitimacy of oppression and increasing the costs of maintaining it. James Lawson, King’s chief strategist who had spent three years in India studying Gandhi’s work, applied this dynamic in the American civil rights movement, and many others used the action in subsequent nonviolent campaigns.

Yet while the novelty of nonviolent resistance has diminished, the refusal to notice its accomplishments or understand its dynamics is still with us, as Rudin inadvertently demonstrates when he suggests that Gandhi’s techniques have not been widely used by Palestinians.

In the first, largely nonviolent 1987-1990 intifada on the West Bank, Palestinians harmonized the use of more than 100 nonviolent sanctions, including marches, strikes, civil disobedience, renaming of streets and schools, resigning from jobs, tax resistance, boycotts, picketing and vigils. Resilience in the face of harsh reprisals and crackdowns came from hundreds of “popular committees,” often run by women.

The 1987 intifada had an impact on Yitzhak Rabin’s thinking and led to the 1991 Madrid Conference and the opening of political space for the Oslo Accords. Fatah and Hamas subsequently alternated between armed and unarmed resistance, to the detriment of the Palestinian cause. Still, radical flanks willing to use violence have often disrupted and displaced nonviolent struggle, even while it was proving effective.

The greatest risk from encouraging violent resistance against even the most hateful oppressors — such as the horrific acts by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — is that large-scale violence in the public space marginalizes the potential role of civilian populations, upon whom both dictators and occupiers ultimately rely for their sustenance and legitimacy, the very factor that creates the potential leverage of civil resistance.

“People power” is not merely a phrase; it is the hallmark of nonviolent conflict. End the cooperation of those who are oppressed, and oppressors cannot last, as Gandhi had discerned by 1905. The ways to do this multiply with every new struggle, and the knowledge of how to apply nonviolent tactics is expanding exponentially. Gandhi was its first major theoretician and practitioner, but what he advanced has animated tens of millions, from Hungary to Hong Kong, from Chile to Tunisia.

History shows that doubting the power of the people to prevail without violence is a doubtful strategy, either to suppress that power or to show the way to a freer and more peaceful world.

[Mary Elizabeth King is the author of A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance and Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India: The 1924-25 Vykom Satyagraha and the Mechanisms of Change.]

This post was first published by the National Catholic Reporter.

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Stanford University Event: Mississippi Freedom Summer Revisited

15 October, 2014

The meaning and impact of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer through the eyes of four individuals, who observed it closely or were participants: Doug McAdam, Claiborne Carson, Marshall Ganz, and Mary King.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer, one of the most consequential moments in the history of the civil rights movement. This issue of Sandstone & Tile chronicles the history of that pivotal project and the roles and recollections of Stanford participants.

In June 1964, more than a thousand collegeaged, primarily white Northerners joined thousands of mostly black civil rights workers in Mississippi and Louisiana in a massive drive to register African American voters. Over the 10 weeks of the project, the volunteers were victims of random shootings, more than 1,600 arrests, 80 serious beatings, and eight deaths. Thirty-seven churches and 30 homes and businesses were bombed or burned. It is well known that the violence was perpetrated by white racist vigilantes and terror groups, often organized by the Ku Klux Klan in collusion with local law enforcement agencies.

In spite of the violence, Freedom Summer volunteers taught in 38 Freedom Schools and assisted the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which challenged the all-white party at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Although Freedom Summer did not succeed in registering many new voters, it brought
nationwide attention to the injustices that African Americans had endured, and it profoundly changed the lives of those who participated.

In April 2014, the society and Continuing Studies co-sponsored a program to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer. The program brought together four committed activists and scholars—some who participated in Freedom Summer in 1964 and others who have studied, analyzed, and written eloquently about it—Douglas McAdam, Clayborne Carson, Marshall Ganz, and Mary Elizabeth King. This article, Mississippi Freedom Summer: 50 Years Later Legacies, Lessons, and Stanford Reflections (from the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Sandstone & Tile), has been adapted from their remarks.

Freedom Summer and the unfinished work of the civil rights movement (al Jazeera)

25 June, 2014

by Alice Driver

A 1965 photograph of a couple in the Mississippi Delta arriving to register to vote [Copyright: Mary Elizabeth King]

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. 

Read more »

Guest Post about Mary King by Alice L. Driver, School of Authentic Journalism

15 May, 2013

This article by Alice L. Driver, School of Authentic Journalism, Class of 2013, was originally published as“US Civil Rights-Era Leader Mary King Says Successful Social Movements Expand Space for Other Struggles” on

Mary King has earned international acclaim for her writing and work focused on social justice movements around the globe. But the important role she played in helping to advance the struggle for women’s rights is a lesser known story of how the success of one social movement, the US civil rights struggle, helped to expand the space for another movement.

Mary King at the inaugural dinner of the 2013 School of Authentic Journalism in Mexico. DR 2013 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.

King’s consciousness of women’s rights was shaped years ago by her organizing and media work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organizing group at the heart of the U.S. civil rights movement that played out in the 1960s.

From a tiny spark, the kind produced by pure belief in something and by the wild and willful certainty of youth, Mary King, while with the SNCC, is credited with helping to plant a seed for the modern women’s rights movement.

King spoke recently about that history while attending the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism — an intensive workshop focused on journalism and social movements held in Mexico from April 17-27 (you can find a slideshow with more photos of the workshop by Alice L. Driver here).
Read more »

Mary King Delivers the 2012 Olivier Memorial Peace Lecture

8 January, 2013

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.

Lecture: Behind the Arab Awakening: Dynamics of Civil Resistance

1 March, 2012

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.

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BBC Start the Week Podcast – Revolution with Wael Ghonim, Paul Mason and Mary King 30th Jan 2012

30 January, 2012

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.

Link to podcast audio file (right click and choose “save as”)

Mary King Honored as a Fellow by Aberystwyth University

14 July, 2011

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.

Mary King Honored with James Lawson Award

24 June, 2011

Mary King (far right) with ICNC President, Jack DuVall, James Lawson, and the other James Lawson award winners.

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.

Mary King Delivers Commencement Address to Ohio Wesleyan University Class of 2011

8 May, 2011

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.

Video of Mary King’s Address to the Ohio Wesleyan Class of 2011

8 May, 2011