Military history

Chapter 23

The Power of Nonviolence

When evil men plot, good men must plan.

—Martin Luther King, Jr.

An improved understanding of how to influence public opinion offered new opportunities for political strategy. Those who for reasons of ethics or prudence did not wish to resort to force could consider strategies based on creating persuasive impressions, moving opinion in their direction without coercion. The strength of these strategies, however, depended on the extent to which they were moving elites along with the public. Even if there were shifts among the public, what would be the mechanisms by which this would affect the policies of governments? Was it just a question of repackaging good ideas to ensure that they attracted attention, or would they still need some pressure behind them to achieve the desired response?

Many of these issues were addressed by the suffragette movement. The advance of democracy in Western capitalist states might have blunted the revolutionary ardor of the labor movement by offering constitutional means to redress grievances, but it also added to the sense of injustice felt by those denied democratic rights. The British Empire, with a liberal ideology at its beating heart but institutionalized suppression around its periphery, was rocked most by demands for political equality. Among these, including anticolonial campaigns and agitation for Irish Home Rule, was a determined and eventually successful campaign by women demanding the right to vote. This campaign was unique because it posed a challenge not only to the political system but also to orthodox views of gender and the most basic of human relationships. The tactics adopted by the suffragette movement had a lasting impact not only as a means of gaining attention in the face of male condescension but also as a direct challenge to stereotypes of femininity, such as a supposed inability to develop and sustain a political argument. At the same time, part of the case was that women not only deserved equality but would bring special qualities to public life.

The campaign in Britain stretched from proposals to include women’s suffrage in the Reform Act of 1867 to the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. Female political rights extended slowly over this period, as women moved into philanthropic and civic affairs. There was dogged resistance to granting women the same rights as men, and it only broke under the weight of the First World War. The suffragette campaign had many strands: some were prepared to work with the established political parties while others found this futile; some framed the issue narrowly in terms of political rights while others sought to address economic issues and challenge orthodox male expectations of a woman’s role. In terms of strategy, there was a constitutional wing—which worked through petitions, lobbying, and demonstrations— and a militant wing—the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by the redoubtable mother and daughter team of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. As to which had the most effect, or whether they detracted from or reinforced each other, opinions are still divided. The militants are now best remembered for the direct action: slashing paintings, arson, breaking windows, chaining themselves to railings, and prison hunger strikes. But they were only one part of a movement that was extremely varied in its forms and preoccupations.

The militancy developed as a result of progressive disillusion, first with the Liberal Party reluctance to honor its ideals, then with the lack of priority given to women by the labor movement, and a growing conviction that legislative routes were being exhausted. The core themes, however, were derived from classic liberal ideals: opposition to forms of arbitrary power that resulted in individuals having obligations but no rights. The rhetoric could be traced back to the French Revolution and then the Chartists, except that gender now displaced class. The militant tactics were justified on the basis, as Christabel Pankhurst put it, that “those who are outside the Constitution have no ordinary means of securing admission; and therefore they must try extraordinary means.” The techniques used by the WSPU helped them gain attention, although what might have worked most to their advantage was the opportunity as a result of being arrested to make their case in court and turn a defense against criminal charges into a political debate. In a jury trial in 1912, for example, Emmeline Pankhurst was able to present herself and her organization as smart, eloquent, capable, well organized, and not at all emotional or hysterical. In particular, she and other suffragettes were able to give their acts a compelling political rationale, which led in Emmeline’s case to the jury calling for leniency.

After this, the rhetoric became more extreme. Christabel Pankhurst even invoked terrorism. The “politically disinherited ones, whether they are men or whether they are women,” she insisted, “are obliged to challenge the physical force used by their tyrant to keep them in bondage.” While passive resistance was dismissed as subservient, active resistance was claimed as “grander and more purifying.” There were more attacks on property, though not on people. This led to concerns elsewhere in the movement that militancy rather than suffrage was becoming the issue. Supporters drifted away, and WSPU moved more underground. In the end, the war provided a useful pretext for ending the militancy without losing face. Indeed, while those on the nonviolent wing of the movement were antiwar, the Pankhursts became active in war work and were notable for strident anti-German, anti-pacifist, and later anti-Bolshevik rhetoric.1

The American suffragette movement, which achieved its goal in 1920, was far less militant. There was a close link with the progressive movement, which pushed to the fore the stresses of industrialization, such as poor women forced to work for meager wages while still caring for children. Although it did become more activist in the years before the First World War in response to the rather staid practice of the main association and contacts with the British movement, the preferred method in America was to show numerical strength through picketing, rallies, and parades. Quakerism, which had long allowed women a role—even as preachers—particularly influenced the movement. Quakers provided much of the early leadership and insistence on nonviolence. The American movement’s eventual success reflected a grasp of the basics of political organizing, with conventions, speaking tours, and fulltime activists keeping the issue to the fore.2 One consequence of this was to open up the possibility of pacifism as the foundation for a successful political strategy and not just the assertion of a particular morality.

The term pacifist had come into use during the nineteenth century to refer to those who renounced all violence. They faced some standard challenges: how, defensively, would they cope with another’s aggression and then how, offensively, could they achieve change without violence. The most difficult charge was that by stressing peace more than injustice pacifists were bound to the status quo. By ruling out force on behalf of the disadvantaged, they would be stuck with existing hierarchies of power and left either playing down grievances or claiming their susceptibility to improbable remedies, such as appeals to love and to reason. The pacifists’ counter was that underdogs had most to lose when disputes became violent, and that once violence was used, even in the name of a good cause, it became less likely that something truly better would result from the struggle and that effective forms of nonviolent pressure could be devised.

The Impact of Gandhi

Pacifism was at its strongest after the First World War. This was largely because the slaughter on the Western Front had shaped popular attitudes on the futility and waste of war. It was also due to evidence of a pacifist effectively leading a movement for radical change as Mohandas Gandhi challenged British rule in India.

Gandhi’s thought was shaped by his experiences in South Africa and India. One influence was Henry David Thoreau of Concord, Massachusetts, whose opposition to slavery led him to refuse to “pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children.” After six years of noncompliance, Thoreau was arrested and spent a night in jail, which resulted in his 1849 lecture on “The Relation of the Individual to the State.” Although his strategy went no further than arguing that if everybody followed his example slavery would be doomed, and in his time he was considered an isolated, eccentric figure, his lecture (published as “Civil Disobedience”) became the classic statement of the ethical case for refusing to accept unjust laws.3 Gandhi had read Thoreau as a young activist and later reported that it helped shape his thinking and was a point of contact with like-minded Americans.4

The link with Tolstoy was closer. In his autobiography, Gandhi described Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You as having “overwhelmed” him. In 1908, Gandhi translated and circulated A Letter to a Hindu, which Tolstoy had written in response to a request from the editor of an Indian journal. It contained one point that Gandhi deemed unassailable. It was astonishing, Tolstoy had written, that “more than two hundred million people, highly gifted both physically and mentally, find themselves in the power of a small group of people quite alien to them in thought, and immeasurably inferior to them in religious morality.” From this he concluded that it was “clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves.” Instead of violent resistance Tolstoy urged nonparticipation “in the violent deeds of the administration, in the law courts, the collection of taxes, or above all in soldiering,” and love as “the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement.”5

There were obvious similarities between the two men. Both sought to lead lives based on self-purification, love, and nonviolence. Both, despite their privileged births, sought to bring themselves closer to the poor, toiling masses. Their conspicuously ascetic ways of life gained them moral authority and an international audience. Gandhi also embraced the idea of selfperfection, but unlike Tolstoy he saw it not as an alternative to political activism but as an essential part. He had a canny understanding that his private spirituality not only protected him against the temptations of public life but added luster to his political claims. His genius was in his ability to use the teachings that guided his personal life as the foundations for a mass movement.

His philosophy of satyagraha, a word of his own devising, involved a combination of truth, love, and firmness. Those who embraced this philosophy had an inner strength giving them the courage and discipline to endure and overwhelm those who relied on violent means. He argued the inseparability of ends and means: violent methods could not deliver a peaceful society.6 Prison should be embraced piously, assault cheerfully, and death peacefully. When he spoke he did so quietly, almost professorially, and never as a demagogue. All this was combined with a shrewd political sensibility. Gandhi had a gift for putting his opponents on the defensive, not only by claiming the moral high ground but also by identifying issues which were particularly awkward for the British.

In March 1930, he began a 240-mile march to the coast in order to demonstrate the injustice of the Raj both monopolizing salt production and then taxing it. The protest was not initially taken seriously but it gathered momentum, leading to Gandhi being jailed and not released until the next year. Though the campaign was unsuccessful in its immediate objective, Gandhi’s methods were now attracting notice and the authorities had to take note of the numbers prepared to align themselves with the protest. The extent and intensity of popular discontent impressed the British. They lacked a compelling response to Gandhi’s theatricality and moral advantage. William Wedgewood Benn, the secretary of state for India, observed in 1931 the similarities to the suffragettes, as well as the Irish and South African campaigns against British rule. “They are all aimed at rallying public sympathy as an ally. They strive to present to the Government the alternative of giving way or appearing in the role of oppressor . . . they first deliberately provoked severity and then complained to the world of it.” Earlier he had understood that the best way to deal with such a challenge was to deny the choice between concession and oppression, but denial was impossible. “They won’t let us leave them alone.” How preferable it would be to have “a straight fight with the revolver people, which is a much simpler and more satisfactory job to undertake.”7

Gandhi’s campaigns did not push the British out of India. They helped confirm, along with the strain resulting from the Second World War, that the subcontinent was just too large to be effectively controlled by a relatively small and distant state of declining authority and capacity. There was a nationalistic swell in Indian opinion that could not be contained indefinitely. But while Gandhi’s efforts did not by themselves make British rule impossible, they did turn his Congress Party into a credible alternative government to the Raj. The fact that his methods worked with other deeper social and political factors was not a reason to dismiss them, although it did raise questions about their effectiveness in other contexts.

At a time of brutality and upheaval across the world, Gandhi stood out as a leader who personified dignity and goodness in the simplicity of his dress and diet, and in his spiritual message. At the same time, he managed to forge an authentic and successful mass movement. Gandhi took the familiar tactics of the underdogs—marches, strikes, and boycotts—and employed them as part of a grander and nobler narrative. His claim to be reaching out to the good in his opponents and the promise of reconciliation left open the possibility of compromise. Was this a strategic formula of wide application or one specially suited to the circumstances of India? It depended on a moral authority that rested on claims to be asserting universal and timeless values, but might its success be due to a very particular set of circumstances?

To argue that nonviolence would be invariably effective ducked the moral question, because it ignored the possibility of hard choices. The method acquired authority and dignity precisely because one possible outcome was extreme suffering and no political gain. Yet if there was no reasonable promise of success, then insisting on nonviolence meant tolerating a greater evil and putting followers at risk, leaving them without defenses and in danger. Even accepting that no good would ever come out of a resort to violence, it might still be that nonviolence could result in greater harm. The issue was posed in a particularly sharp form with the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. Nonviolence might work well with the British, who wished to avoid a violent struggle and could be embarrassed by displays of popular resistance, but Gandhi’s conviction that his methods would work against the Nazis was barely credible. Nor did he cope well when his own people fought each other, as India gained independence. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to bridge the vicious sectarian divide between Hindus and Muslims and he suffered a violent death at the hands of an assassin in 1948.

The Potential of Nonviolence

Gandhi’s influence was felt in the campaign for civil rights for blacks in the American South, where segregation and discrimination were rigidly enforced. Although the possible use of nonviolent tactics was mentioned during the interwar years, it was not until after the Second World War that such methods were embraced in what became a remarkably successful campaign.

There were obvious differences in the two settings. Gandhi was stirring up the whole Indian population against a distant imperialist power. Blacks were a minority facing an unforgiving local majority. Their predicament posed in a sharp form the underlying dilemmas facing a nonviolent strategy. The so-called Jim Crow laws (named after a caricature black from a minstrel show) had been passed by southern legislatures after the Civil War and were often backed by crude violence. They made it extremely difficult for blacks to vote; meant segregated facilities for eating, transportation, burial, medical, and school facilities; and banned cohabitation and marriage between whites and non-whites. A search for goodness among the segregationists appeared a short and futile journey, and defiance could be suicidal.

The barriers imposed on the ability of blacks to make their way economically as well as politically had undermined the Atlanta Compromise of 1895, proposed by Booker T. Washington. “The wisest of my race,” he had observed, “understand that agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly.” Instead, his people would work at thrift and industry, become model employees, and so gradually join American society as equals (for “no race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized”). Citizenship would assuredly follow. Not surprisingly, the compromise was warmly embraced by black and white moderates. The premise that it would be hard to attain political power without economic power had some validity. In practice, however, with little progress on either the economic or political front, the compromise was increasingly seen as a recipe for prolonged servitude. A more radical but also analytical edge was provided by W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African-American to secure a Ph.D. from Harvard. He had studied with Weber in Germany and the two kept in touch. Weber considered him to be one of America’s most gifted sociologists and cited him as a counter-example when challenging racial stereotypes. Du Bois undertook major research programs on the “Negro problem,” demonstrating the impact of political choices rather than some primordial difference between the races. He campaigned for civil rights and founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with the support of such white reformers as Jane Addams and John Dewey.

In 1924, Du Bois published a critique of nonviolence by Franklin Frazier, another black (and Chicago-trained) sociologist, in The Crisis, the NAACP’s official organ. Frazier mocked the idea of turning the other cheek in the face of violence. This was just after an anti-lynching law had been filibustered out of the Senate, demonstrating that the southern white establishment condoned racist murders as a way of intimidating blacks. Responding to Frazier, the white Quaker Ellen Winsor pointed to Gandhi and wondered whether a similar figure could “arise in this country to lead the people out of their misery and ignorance, not by the old way of brute force which breeds sorrow and wrong, but by the new methods of education based on economic justice leading straight to Freedom.” A rejoinder came from Frazier:

Suppose there should arise a Gandhi to lead Negroes without hate in their hearts to stop tilling the fields of the South under the peonage system; to cease paying taxes to States that keep their children in ignorance; and to ignore the iniquitous disenfranchisement and Jim Crow laws, I fear we would witness an unprecedented massacre of defenseless black men and women in the name of Law and Order and there would scarcely be enough Christian sentiment in America to stay the flood of blood.

When, a few years later, Du Bois invited and received an article from Gandhi, he added his own observation: “Agitation, non-violence, refusal to cooperate with the oppressor, became Gandhi’s watchword and with it he is leading all India to freedom. Here and today he stretches out his hand in fellowship to his colored friends of the West.”8 Du Bois focused more on Gandhi’s readiness to engage in direct action and his refusal to yield to oppression than on his underlying philosophy. On that he remained skeptical. As other American black activists started to talk of Gandhian campaigns, Du Bois pointed out how tactics of fasting, public prayer, and self-sacrifice were alien to the United States but had been “bred into the very bone of India for more than three thousand years.”9

Gandhi never visited the United States but understood its political importance to his own cause—gaining independence from the British—and also the potential relevance of his ideas to the divisions within American society.10 The initial impetus of contact with Gandhi was not specifically related to the black cause. It reflected the traditional pacifist focus on war and a more recent interest in labor unrest. While Richard Gregg was working as a lawyer on labor disputes in the early 1920s, he developed sympathy with the unions and was appalled by the violence used by employers to suppress them. Worried about the dangers if workers responded in kind, he explored passive resistance. This led him to take up residence in India where he was in regular contact with Gandhi. On his return, he wrote a series of books encouraging a move away from traditional pacifism as a difficult moral choice, an expression of an inner conviction about the sanctity of human life preoccupied with the problem of war, to a more strategic appreciation of the special power conferred by a commitment to nonviolence when engaged in domestic conflicts. He sought to extricate pacifism “from the profitless atmosphere of emotional adjectives and of vague mysticism, futile protests and sentimentalism combined with confused thinking.” Rather than stress the contrast with traditional military strategy, he urged his readers to see nonviolence as another type of weapon, an innovation in warfare that made it possible to struggle without killing.11

Gregg was particularly intrigued by the possibility of using suffering to dramatize issues. At issue was not personal belief but whether actions could shame opponents and gain sympathy from onlookers. He described how nonviolent resistance to violent attack would work as a “sort of moral jiu-jitsu,” causing the attacker to “lose his moral balance.” This depended on a change of heart, which in turn depended on the nervous system triggering an almost involuntary empathetic response to another’s suffering. In the modern age the extent and impact of such responses would be far greater because of mass media. The unique drama of defenseless men and women accepting vicious assaults made for a fascinating “story” and “wonderful news.” The likely bad publicity posed a threat to the attacker. He was alive to the potential relevance of this approach to the struggle for black rights and was in touch with his fellow Harvard alumnus, W. E. B. Du Bois. It is unclear what Du Bois thought of Gregg’s characterization of Negroes as a “gentle race, accustomed to marvelous endurance of suffering” and thus ideally suited to a nonviolent campaign.

While Gregg was exploring whether nonviolence could be made to work as a strategy, Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant minister, was concluding that it could not. His starting point was similar in that he had also been radicalized by his experience of labor relations, in this case as a pastor in Detroit working with Ford workers. Gradually he came to see nonviolence as supporting the status quo. He could not object to the principle, but he warned about the consequences of its application in an imperfect world. He did not share the optimism in man’s essential goodness. It was unwise to expect those who benefited from inequality and injustice to respond positively to reasonable requests for equality and justice. Instead of approaching the powerful with a perfect and somehow irresistible love they must be confronted with counterpower. His views were expressed in a remarkable and influential book, Moral Man and Immoral Society.12

Niebuhr’s focus on power led him to become identified as a key realist thinker, unique because he framed the issues in theological terms. For our purposes we do not need to explore the theological issues too deeply. Niebuhr saw the urge to power as the way by which men sought to give themselves significance in the face of an infinite universe. This inherent selfregard was aggravated by the nature of human consciousness. Because human beings could imagine how their desires could be fulfilled well beyond immediate possibilities, there was an urge to self-aggrandizement which, unless checked, would see any possibility of compromise displaced by preparations for a fight. Though reason would dictate cooperation and nonviolence, unfortunately there was “no miracle by which men can achieve a rationality high enough to give them as vivid an understanding of general interests as of their own.” Groups made matters worse, for crowds were poor at reasoning. As a result, attempts to deal with groups by the sort of loving morality that might work with individuals could well be disastrous.

Niebuhr was aware that this gloomy view of human nature and the role of power and interest in human affairs could lead to defeatism among the victims of injustice and inequality. But realism, he judged, was a better place to start than a naive and sentimental idealism, overestimating the potential goodness and trustworthiness of others. Those who refused to recognize the reality of conflict and address issues of power tended to propose measures that were in practice timid and ineffectual. Their discomfort with forms of compulsion, including force, rendered them incapable of achieving justice. “Immediate consequences,” he observed in terms of which Weber would have approved, “must be weighed against ultimate consequences.” Contrary to the view that some means could never be justified, Niebuhr was prepared to argue that ends do provide a justification. Again, a society’s morality was different from an individual’s because there was so much more at stake. An individual’s pursuit of the absolute may be futile. When a society pursues the absolute, it “risk[s] the welfare of millions.” Better then to discourage a search for perfection in societies and accept compromise.

The next stage in his argument was to deny any rigid distinction between violent and nonviolent coercion. “As long as it enters the field of social and physical relations and places physical restraints upon the desires and activities of others, it is a form of physical coercion.” Even apparently nonviolent action could lead to hurt. Gandhi’s boycott of British textiles, for example, hurt British textile workers. Niebuhr gave the impression of being more irritated by the self-righteousness of the practitioners of nonviolence than the practice itself. He appreciated its potential advantage as protecting “the agent against the resentments which violent conflict always creates in both parties to a conflict.” It could also demonstrate an interest in a peaceful resolution. Intriguingly, Niebuhr noted the potential strategic value of nonviolence “for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority and has no possibility of developing sufficient power to set against its oppressors.” He added that for that reason it would be appropriate for the “emancipation of the Negro race in America.”

An American Gandhi?

In May 1942, “the first organized civil rights sit-in in American history” took place at the Jack Spratt Coffee House in Chicago when a group of twenty- eight people divided themselves up into small groups, each including at least one black man or woman, and sat down. The coffee house’s small staff was caught in confusion, especially as attempts to avoid serving the blacks at all, or at most serve them out of sight, gained little sympathy from either other customers or the police when they were called.13 This effort was successful. Taking place in Chicago, before the city’s later deterioration in race relations, it was not as severe a test as would later be faced in southern states, but it demonstrated the possibility that firm but polite action might disorient racists and expose discrimination.

At the heart of the action was James Farmer, a young African-American from Texas who had graduated in theology. He was then the race relations secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a strongly pacifist group based in New York. It was formed in 1915 by a number of leading antiwar figures, including Jane Addams and A. J. Muste. A minister who later became an active trade unionist and socialist, Muste was FOR’s executive director from 1940 to 1953.14 Over this period, pacifists once again found themselves on the wrong side of a popular cause. This time the evil of the enemy was more than propagandistic bombast and the country had been caught by a surprise attack.

Farmer had been agitating to establish a distinct organization charged with promoting racial equality and was permitted to see if something could be achieved in Chicago before consideration was given to taking his idea further. There was already a FOR group at the University of Chicago, led by George Houser, who had been thinking along similar lines. Together they formed the Committee (later Congress) of Racial Equality (CORE). It eventually became more important than its parent. Distracted already by the war, FOR now had young activists wishing to employ tactics that were provocative and bound to raise tensions, moving beyond love and reason to coercion. When Farmer first presented to FOR his “Brotherhood Mobilization Plan,” he faced objections on the grounds that not only would this divert effort and attention away from the antiwar effort but also that the protests would be warlike, not overtly violent but sufficient to disrupt peace and tranquility and fail to turn the racist’s heart toward justice. Farmer saw these Tolstoy- like arguments as supporting passivity. Failure to act would perpetuate the everyday violence of segregation. He believed in the nonviolent creed, but his standard was effectiveness not purity of motive. For the same reason he did not wish CORE to be open only to true pacifists.15 He told a disappointed Muste, who had mixed feelings about a new national and not overtly pacifist organization, the “masses of Negroes will not become pacifists. Being Negroes for them is tough enough without being pacifist, too. Neither will the masses of whites.”16

Farmer’s guide when taking on Jack Spratt’s Coffee House was Krishnalal Shridharani, a journalist who had followed Gandhi in India to the point of being arrested. His War Without Violence was pragmatic, a practical manual alerting practitioners to focus on the evil rather than the evildoer and ensure that the action was directly relevant to the particular evil being addressed. His description of the effect of nonviolence on opponents was largely drawn from Gregg and stressed the psychological confusion caused by unexpected tactics. He was the guest speaker at CORE’s founding conference in June 1943. Farmer recorded his surprise that instead of a Gandhi-like figure, ascetic and bony, he found a well-dressed and well-fed Brahman, with rings on his fingers and smoking a cigar. Perhaps it was therefore not surprising that Shridharani played down the moral aspects of Gandhism and stressed the strategic, dwelling on the opportunities provided by modern media to use dramatic actions to spread a political message. He suspected that American pacifists exaggerated the spiritual dimensions of an Indian movement that was largely secular. The religious aspects of satyagraha were of “propaganda and publicity reasons as well as for the personal satisfaction of deeply conscientious men like Gandhi” and his disciples. Nonviolence had been adopted for “earthly, tangible, and collective aims” and so could be “discarded if it does not work.”17 He grasped the impact of the refusal to engage with the fight with Hitler on the credibility of pacifism, which led to his own skepticism about FOR and its leadership.

The man who saw most clearly how nonviolence could be made to work for blacks was Bayard Rustin. Born in 1912, Rustin was raised in a Quaker family in Pennsylvania. He was gifted intellectually, athletically, and musically. Refined and cultured, he affected an upper-class British accent, but was also a consistent activist, moving between campaigns against war and for racial justice, ready to accept jail for either cause. Enthused by the febrile radical, intellectual atmosphere of late 1930s New York, he joined the Young Communist League until he realized that it had no special commitment to racial justice. In 1941 he became involved with Philip Randolph, a leading black campaigner close to the labor movement. Randolph had picked up on how the early mobilization for war increased the economic importance of black workers. He proposed a march of ten thousand people on Washington demanding desegregation of the armed forces and an end to racial discrimination in the war industries.18

The march was canceled when President Roosevelt signed the Fair Employment Act which banned discrimination in the war industry, though not the armed forces. Rustin thought Randolph should have held out for more concessions, and went off to work for Muste. In practice, Randolph— the wise elder statesman of the civil rights movement—became Rustin’s most consistent and loyal patron. When two decades later Rustin eventually got his own organization to run, it would be the Philip Randolph Foundation. Randolph’s support and admiration for Rustin’s political and administrative skills were particularly important because Muste disapproved of Rustin’s homosexuality, both morally and politically. At the time it was a crime, judged as a perverse sexual choice. A 1953 Californian conviction for immorality, combined with his past communism, obliged Rustin to keep a low profile. This prevented him being recognized as one of the key leaders of the civil rights movement. He was described as “an intellectual engineer behind the scenes—probably the most adroit tactical aide to almost all the frontline black leaders and organizations.”19

In retrospect it is difficult to understand how the Jim Crow laws had survived so long. In the media age, and with a global struggle underway to win over allegiances to the United States at a time of growing anti-colonial sentiment, there was something jarring about a situation so at odds with the country’s proclaimed values. But the entrenched power structures of the old confederacy were not so easy to dislodge, and while northern politicians deplored segregation, there were few political prizes to be gained doing anything about it. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education) which declared segregated public schools unconstitutional was at one level a morale-booster to blacks, but at another it hardened southern white opinion against integration, undermining moderates. As new challenges arose, the segregationists were in a determined mood.

The main black organization—the NAACP—was based in the North, lacked a mass organization, and was barred from operating in some southern states on grounds of subversion. Nonetheless, in November 1955, it was the secretary of the local branch of the NAACP, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and was arrested. This was a moment for which local activists had prepared: soon Montgomery’s buses were being boycotted. This was “no bolt from the blue,”20 and the effects were as anticipated. A crisis was created for the bus company, which depended on blacks for up to three-quarters of its customers. There were already precedents. In some cases, notably Baton Rouge, action had led to concessions, although not full integration. The compromises still involved blacks sitting at the back of buses. In Montgomery, the white establishment refused to budge. As the blacks found ways of getting their people to work without the buses, their demands escalated into a challenge to the principle of segregation. The boycott ended in late 1956 when the Supreme Court declared bus segregation laws to be unconstitutional.

For those looking for lessons for direct action, three appeared salient. First, the economic effects were as important as the political. In that respect, the actions were coercive. Second, the political effects grew as the boycott endured and the national and international media became progressively more intrigued by the struggle. Third, on balance, the harsher the local response the more the campaign benefited. A subsequent bus boycott in Tallahassee, Florida, faced a more sophisticated local police chief, determined not to make martyrs, and authorities showing a degree of flexibility. This helped take the steam out of the protest and cause divisions in the campaign, although the Supreme Court case that confirmed the illegality of bus segregation in Alabama had the same effect in Florida.

The leaders of the Montgomery campaign, who became the key figures in a burgeoning civil rights movement, applied these lessons over the next decade. The young Baptist pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reluctantly agreed to preside over the campaign’s organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), became its most familiar and eloquent face. Though a female group had provided the impetus for the boycott, the church provided leadership and organization. The churches were the only local institutions independent of white society, financed and run by blacks.

Their congregations had been swelling with the migration from rural to urban areas. They offered the movement both respectability and a religious theatricality.

King turned out to be a natural leader, a gifted orator who could reach out to an audience beyond his local congregation. He had an understanding of organization and tactics and a readiness to learn. He was aware of Gandhi and Thoreau, but he had not thought through nonviolence as a strategy.21 As a theological student he had wrestled with the issues of morality and politics, was aware of Niebuhr’s Christian realism, and remained unconvinced by those who spoke of the power of love to change hearts. He wrote in a college essay that “pacifists fail to recognize the sinfulness in man” and the need for a degree of “coercion to keep one man from injuring his fellows.” Later he said he believed at this time that the “only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt.”22

As the Montgomery boycott began, neither he nor the other members of the MIA had much of an idea of strategy. They were nonviolent but that was not a deliberate choice. Violence was the segregationists’ weapon. If it came to a fight, blacks would lose. As the pressure against them was stepped up during the first weeks of the boycott, they felt obliged to consider forms of self-defense, including their own weapons, especially after King’s house was bombed at the end of January 1956. The shift in tactics and philosophy came as King acquired a number of advisers seeped in Gandhism. The first to reach him was Rustin. Not only had Rustin extraordinary practical experience, including the credibility derived from time in India and in jail, but also confidence in his own beliefs, acumen, and powers of persuasion. Because of his controversial past, Rustin had to withdraw from Montgomery almost as soon as he arrived. But he did not stop advising King, with whom he stayed close thereafter. Most accounts put him to the fore as an influence on the campaign.23 His replacement was another FOR/CORE activist, Glenn Smiley. He brought King’s attention to the works of Richard Gregg. In late 1956, King listed Gregg’s The Power of Non-Violence with Thoreau and Gandhi as particular influences.24 In addition to Rustin and Smiley, and later Gregg himself, another Gandhian influence was Harris Wofford, who later worked for President Kennedy and had also spent time in India studying nonviolence. Stanley Levison, a wealthy lawyer and former communist, introduced to King by Rustin, eventually became one of King’s closest confidants.

The immediate effect of their arrival was to make nonviolence a guiding principle rather than a prudent tactic. Rustin argued that nonviolence had to be unconditional, so there could be no guns, even if only for self-defense, let alone armed bodyguards. He also demonstrated how this could be turned to tactical advantage, by persuading MIA leaders indicted by a grand jury for violating a state anti-boycott statute to dress smartly, smile broadly, and turn themselves in, thus depriving the arrests of gravity and intimidation. By the end of the Montgomery campaign, King was personally committed to a Gandhian philosophy. Within two years, he was making his own pilgrimage to India to meet with followers of the great teacher. “There is more power in socially organized masses on the march,” he declared, “than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men. Our enemies would prefer to deal with a small armed group rather than with a huge, unarmed but resolute mass of people.” He drew confidence from history which taught that “like a turbulent ocean beating great cliffs into fragments of rock, the determined movement of people incessantly demanding their rights always disintegrates the old order.”25 Unavoidably, King’s nonviolence had to draw as much from the Sermon on the Mount as from Gandhi. Its spirituality and dignity fitted a pastor. How well it was appreciated by black opinion is another matter. They could understand that there was little to be gained by initiating violence, but suggestions that high-minded actions in the name of racial justice might touch a segregationist’s heart could seem far-fetched. Moreover, the personal risks involved in inviting time in jail, especially for those who needed jobs and had to care for families, could be considerable.

For King, the strategy made perfect sense. For many of his supporters it was conditional, but then the same had been true for Gandhi. King’s own theorizing was largely derivative. Indeed, as his biographers discovered when reviewing his doctoral thesis, King had an unfortunate tendency to plagiarism. At its most benign, this meant that he was relaxed when others willingly offered him drafts to which he could put his own name. Rustin drafted King’s first political article and then published it in his own journal, Liberation.26 The article described a “new Negro” who had “replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity.” The bus boycott had undermined many of the stereotypes Negroes had about themselves and others had about them, that they lacked nerve and staying power. The boycott had “broken the spell.” Six lessons were listed from the struggle: the community could stick together and their leaders did not have to sell out; they need not be intimidated by threats and violence; the church was becoming militant; there was a new self-belief; the importance of economics was understood, as white businessmen were anxious about the loss of business; a “new and powerful weapon” had been discovered in nonviolence, strengthening the movement by facing violence without returning it. King used more or less the same lessons when he spoke in December 1956 after the favorable Supreme Court ruling.27

He never really put the effort into developing a coherent philosophy. Without the direct engagement of Rustin and Levison, his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, would not have been published. Garrow described the chapter on nonviolence as an embarrassment. Here too King’s contributions indicated a tendency to borrow liberally from others. The key chapter on “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” was “in part a poorly organized and at times erroneous hodgepodge of contributions from a number of King’s editorial advisers.”28 Despite the shortcomings of the book, King was on his way to becoming an iconic figure and Rustin understood better than most his value to the civil rights movement.

Any comparison with Gandhi was suggestive but potentially misleading. King was only in his mid-20s and had neither prepared for nor sought a political role. He was at times a muddled thinker and, it later transpired, somewhat reckless in his private life. And yet for all his flaws and inexperience, there was no denying his courage, commitment, and grasp of southern black culture. His eloquence was special, almost poetic, drawing on the familiar cadences and rhythms of black preachers but also the classical tropes of American democracy and Western philosophy. The evident risks he was running, in the face of regular death threats, real violence, and occasional spells in prison, demonstrated that he was a man who suffered for his cause. He soon became a media star and so came to personify the black movement as its most visible face and most compelling voice. He had the quality described by Weber as “charisma.”

As he reflected on the Montgomery campaign, Rustin noted the strategic benefits of a bus boycott. It had a clear purpose, economic impact, and was susceptible to direct action. Unlike other targets, such as integrated education, there was no “administrative machinery and legal maneuvering” to get in the way. The action required a “daily rededication” to the struggle and so raised community solidarity and pride, making “humble folk noble” and turning “fear into courage.” Notably it had depended upon “the most stable social institution in Negro culture—the Church.”29 In early 1957, Rustin masterminded the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Each word was significant. Southern meant “not national.” “Christian” reflected the special role of the Church in the South (for whites as well as blacks) and incidentally undermined claims that the movement was communist. “Leadership Conference” eschewed a mass membership organization. The advantage of this formulation was to avoid a fight with the NAACP, a national organization, which considered itself best able to speak for blacks. The NAACP’s director, Roy Wilkins, was wary of King as a young upstart. King made little secret of his concern that based in the North, Wilkins was too preoccupied with mounting legal challenges to the Jim Crow laws and had done little to challenge them directly. Nonetheless, he did not want to foment disunity in the movement. The serious advantage of the SCLC was that it provided institutional support to King as the leader capable of giving meaning to the struggle and describing the strategy in terms that made sense to those who had to follow it. Wofford later recalled how “Rustin seemed ever-present with advice, and sometimes acted as if King were a precious puppet whose symbolic actions were to be planned by a Gandhian high command.”30

Rustin understood that King was no puppet and had special leadership qualities. The real problem, as he acknowledged, was that the Church was a natural autocracy, without serious bureaucratic procedures. Ministers organized politically in the same way that they organized their congregations.31 This suited King but it soon led to complaints. One of King’s most severe critics was Ella Baker, an effective organizer who ran the SCLC. She became discouraged by the developing cult of personality, reflecting an urge to find a savior, which held back the emergence of a democratic mass movement.32 Without a mass base, there was no secure financial stream and much of King’s time was spent touring to raise funds. Fairclough argues that the “decision against creating a national mass-membership organization . . . turned out to be a serious and eventually crippling handicap.”33

Even with a larger organization there would have been problems when it came to major campaigns of nonviolent direct action. There were a limited number of volunteers, perhaps no more than 5 percent of a given population. From those with jobs or responsibilities to their families it was unrealistic to expect major commitment. The real difference when it came to the surge of militancy that marked the early 1960s was that substantial numbers of students, black and white, developed a taste for direct action. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed with SCLC’s help in 1960 and began to make their mark by reviving the sort of action pioneered by James Farmer and his colleagues in 1942, starting with four students sitting-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro in 1961. At the time, this was presented as a spontaneous expression of anger that somehow sparked a movement, a representation that dried up “like a raisin in the sun” as it became apparent that the students had been activists in the youth wing of the NAACP, were drawing on experience of sit-ins over the previous two years, and had planned the activity carefully. The movement spread through a network of churches and campuses.34 In May the first “freedom rides” intended to desegregate bus terminals across the South left Washington, DC. The tactic fit in naturally with the direct action philosophy of King and Rustin, and they had little difficulty embracing it as a new stage in the campaign. By this time the white establishment was becoming more subtle in their tactics. Rustin may have been right that transport was a natural target, but following the Supreme Court ruling cities did not put up much resistance to desegregating buses. Voter registration, the other major push, was the best way to get real political power for blacks over the long term, but it was a slow process, especially when local officials felt able to interpret the law to keep out black voters.

In December 1961, the first “community-wide protest campaigns” began in Albany, Georgia. Now rather than focusing on a particular target, such as a lunch counter or bus terminal, the aim was to develop a concerted attack on all local forms of segregation in order to create a crisis that would test the segregationists’ tolerance. This was not a great success, but lessons were learned and then “refined through a process of trial and error to the point where it was responsible for the most dramatic campaigns of the entire movement.”35 The new campaign was much more provocative, almost designed to incite violence, showing how far strategies of nonviolence had moved from when they had sought to inspire a reciprocal goodness in the hearts of segregationists. Now it was the contrast between official brutality and dignified demands for basic rights that provided the impact. As Rustin observed, “protest becomes an effective tactic to the degree that it elicits brutality and oppression from the power structure.”36 If so, the logic was to search for the more brutish police chiefs, a task that became more challenging as the more astute police forces were training their men to arrest without violence. In the spring of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, such a chief was found in Eugene “Bull” Connors. He exceeded expectations in arresting children and in his resort to fire hoses and dogs. This ensured that the demonstrators were clearly the victims.37

The strategy behind the Birmingham campaign was not so much to provoke violence as to generate a crisis of which violence could be a symptom. When he found himself in jail in Birmingham, facing criticism from local clergyman for “unwise and untimely” activities, King set out a clear statement of his philosophy. The demonstrations, he insisted, should not be deplored more than the conditions which stimulated them. The objective of nonviolent direct action was negotiation, but to achieve that it was necessary to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”38 This was a nonviolent version of “Propaganda of the Deed.” In the case of Birmingham, this was achieved as much by sustained economic pressure on the city center as by the excesses of the local police. The two combined to produce a dramatic effect. Again to quote Rustin, “Businessmen and chambers of commerce across the South dreaded the cameras.”39 By causing protracted disorder, the hope was that business leaders in Birmingham would be persuaded to accept that desegregation and hiring more blacks was the price of economic survival. A further objective was to shift the political calculus of the Kennedy administration in favor of a civil rights bill.

The theater of conflict was the city center, a relatively compact space that could be flooded with protestors unless the authorities found a way to stop them. Unlike the Alabama campaign, Birmingham was well planned and drew on a strong local organization. It began at the start of April 1963, a couple of weeks before Easter, one of the busiest times of the year for city shops. It opened with the black community boycotting shops and holding demonstrations and sit-ins at lunch counters. All blacks (250,000 out of a city of 600,000) could participate in the boycott of downtown shops. The effect was immediate and damaging. To get the city under control, police chief Connor’s first tactic was borrowed from Albany. He combined a court injunction to ban sit-ins and demonstrations with the imposition of high bail bonds. Instead of obeying the injunction, as in Albany, this time the leadership decided to disobey. King and his top lieutenant, Ralph Abernathy, were arrested on Good Friday. King thought the timing symbolic and propitious.

This was followed by mass defiance of the injunctions. On May 2, the numbers participating in the demonstrations increased with the introduction of thousands of high school students. Soon one thousand were in jail. The authorities now faced the problem of either filling the jails until they were overflowing or trying to stop the demonstrators from reaching their destination. This is when the violence began, as fire hoses, clubs, and dogs were used to stop the demonstrators from moving downtown. These measures failed to stem the tide. A report from the Birmingham sheriff spoke of “stuffed jail- houses with rebellious staffs and budgets already overspent for the year; street officers on the point of cracking from relentless stress, helpless to make further arrests but caught between taunting demonstrators, omnipresent news cameras, and the conflicting orders of an unstable and divided high command that included Bull Connor.”40 The culminating moment came on May 7, when the whole downtown area was flooded by demonstrators. The police cordons were outflanked by using decoy marches, starting the main marches earlier than normal (while the police were having their lunch), and then holding other marchers back until the police were preoccupied. With some three thousand people effectively occupying the city center, the police had to acknowledge a loss of control. King recalled how one of the businessmen returning from a lunch he had been unable to reach “cleared his throat and said: ‘You know, I’ve been thinking this thing through, we ought to be able to work something out.’ ”41 The next day the business community threw in the towel, although the political elite wanted to carry on the struggle.

On June 19, 1963, President Kennedy sent a national civil rights bill to Congress. This was followed by the dramatic march to Washington in late August 1963, organized by Rustin, involving a quarter of a million people and culminating in King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. Civil rights were now assured a place at the top of the American political agenda.

Inevitably, at this point the movement came to face the fact that political rights did not guarantee improvement in economic or social conditions. The vote did not feed the children or pay the rent, although it did make possible further forms of political activity that might help over time. But King’s campaign culminated not with black satisfaction but with frustration, as riots broke out in the inner cities. As King began to turn his attention to issues of poverty, the question was whether the methods that had brought political gains in the South and launched him to national prominence could work across the country on issues that were much more intractable.

King had led a focused campaign with a clear set of objectives, working with communities he understood and with tactics that—once refined— served both to coerce local white establishments through economic pain and turn the media spotlight on to the iniquities of segregation by provoking their police forces into violence. The whites saw their local businesses being hurt by bus boycotts and city center mayhem. If they tried to suppress the movement with the methods that had served them well in the past, they alienated northern politicians and the media. If they held back, they had few options other than to find a new modus vivendi with blacks. The movement’s strategists could comfort themselves even as their people suffered harsh treatment that this played into their hands. So long as their people did not buckle under the pressure, the contrast between the dignity of the protestors and the brutality of the police created a stunning media spectacle.

The problem was never with the clarity of the cause. The segregationists’ arguments were incredible and untenable, at odds with liberal values. The challenge was to convince blacks that to gain the same rights as other Americans they had to work together and to develop a considerable local organization. In meeting both these requirements, the Church played a central role. The strategy also required nonviolence. This was not because of any expectation that segregationist hearts could be turned by this form of witness but because it ensured that the movement kept the moral high ground. Those who learned their politics in the civil rights movements were convinced of the value of direct action and saw comparable causes to demand their attention, but these causes would not be so clear cut as civil rights. The radical politics of the sixties began with dignity and restraint but soon turned angrier, with riots in the urban ghettoes and sharp reactions against an illegitimate war.

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