Elements of Resistance: Warriors of Peace

Jeriah Bowser I Social Movement Studies I Publication I October 10th, 2014

The following is Chapter Six, in its entirety, from the forthcoming book, "Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State" by Jeriah Bowser and published by the Hampton Institute Press.

There have always been individuals who have sought to understand the root cause of oppressive violence and injustice, and who have tried, some successfully and some not, to counteract the violence of their culture with a nonviolent and pacifist alternative. Three such individuals stand out in the past few centuries as great leaders of resistance movements: Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Each of these men and the struggles they led are commonly held up as examples of nonviolence at work. They are often brought up in conversations about nonviolent vs. violent tactics as proof that "Nonviolence works, right! I mean, India is independent, South Africa is no longer under Apartheid rule, and Black people in the US no longer have their own water fountains! How can you argue with that logic?"

There are two major ways that we are duped into seeing 'The changing of the masks' as social progress; a) By not understanding that every successful nonviolent movement had a violent counterpart that was crucial to the success of the overall struggle; and b) By not understanding the way that oppression simply changes forms, methods, and definitions while maintaining or increasing the actual level of oppressive violence. We will closely examine the lives of these three men and the movements they represented and try to more accurately understand the roles that nonviolent and violent resistance has shaped the course of history in an attempt to learn from their mistakes and successes, so that we may hopefully make our resistance more effective.


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 in India. Great Britain, one of the largest and most violent States in the history of humanity, had 'acquired' through violent means the country of India during the mid-1800s. India, as a colony of Great Britain, was subjected to an increased level of State structural violence, as England was quite adept at exploiting the people and land of India and converting them into capital, turning the natural world into money, transforming life into death. The people of India had been pawns on the world stage for hundreds of years at this point, and were hungry for independence around the time of Gandhi's entry into the picture.

Gandhi had a fairly quiet and inconsequential childhood, in which the importance of truth and asceticism were impressed deeply upon him. He was educated in London to be a lawyer, and shortly thereafter moved to South Africa to work for a trading company. He was fairly unfamiliar with racism and oppression, as his father was an influential politician and Mohandas had experienced a somewhat privileged upbringing, so when he was thrown off of a train for refusing to sit third class when he had a first class ticket, he was shocked and horrified at this treatment. He quickly became involved with resistance work in South Africa after he heard about a bill that was being passed that would eliminate the voting rights of Indians, Native South Africans, and other non-European people groups. Although incredibly inexperienced and unfamiliar with either social reform or public leadership, he managed to join South Africa's marginalized and oppressed people groups together to resist the oppressive government and secure meager political and social gains. Returning home to India, Gandhi realized that the racism and oppression he had experienced in South Africa were very much present in his beloved homeland, and he spent the rest of his life attempting to fight this injustice through his philosophy which he developed, known as Satyagraha.

Satyagraha can be translated as "Soul force" or "Truth force." Satyagraha states that an unjust opponent or situation can be overcome by a dedication to the truth, a willingness to suffer, and a commitment to nonviolence, or ahimsa. Through loving nonviolent action, Gandhi believed that every oppressive person, system, and State in the world could be overcome. There are many ways that Satyagraha can be used to resolve issues ranging from small family disputes to massive geopolitical struggles and a full exploration of it is not necessary here, however, I highly recommend those who are not familiar to research it more fully on their own[1]. Although Satyagraha is widely hailed as one of the most important theories to come out of the past century and has been used successfully in perhaps thousands of successful resistance movements since Gandhi first practiced it in India, it would be a disservice to not examine it fully and try to understand its shortcomings.

One of the fatal flaws of Satyagraha is its perhaps utopian idealism, in that it does not account for the realities of senseless oppressive violence that oftentimes take place in our self-destructive world. With Satyagraha, you can be as actively nonviolent as possible, committing your entire self to your cause, and at the end of the day if your opponent is not moved to compassion, your best option is to simply die with dignity rather than resist with violence. This flaw is made apparent in an open letter from Gandhi to the Jewish people who were being oppressed at the hands of Nazi Germany where he urged them to nonviolently resist their oppressors and persuade them with the force of their souls, even in the face of blatant genocide, declaring that " if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant [2]" and in his letter to Hitler where he politely asked the Fuhrer to, " prevent a war which may reduce the world to a savage state.[3] " This line of reasoning was completely unrealistic in the face of such naked oppressive violence, and he received much criticism for his stance on the Jewish genocide. Stokely Carmichael summed it up well, " In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. [4] "

The two points which need to be emphasized and understood in regards to Gandhi and his movement are again: a) the role that violence played in the Indian independence movement, and b) the lack of real social change post-independence.

The Satyagraha movement, Gandhi's Indian independence movement, was indeed a remarkable social movement that did many things right and no doubt contributed to the eventual liberation of India from British rule in 1947. Gandhi's group was not the only group working towards independence, however, nor was it even the largest group. Bhagat Singh, Rani Laxmi Bai, Chandrashekhar Azad, Subhas Chandra Bose, Nana Saheb, Bal Gangadar Tilak, Ram Prasad Bismil, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Jawaharlal Nehru were all leaders of various social, revolutionary, religious, and political parties in India who were fighting for independence alongside the Satyagraha campaign. These groups and leaders all contributed to the eventual independence of India, and many of these groups were much larger and in many ways more successful than the Satyagraha campaign. So why do we only ever hear about Gandhi?

One answer to this lies with the concept of 'saving face' and the need of the British Empire to maintain its illusion of power, control, and noble character to the rest of the world. At a certain point, the British government realized that Indian independence was inevitable, and they had several choices as to how they would make their departure. They could go fighting with the radical socialist forces of Bhagat Singh, they could go by the ballot with Jawaharlal Nehru's Indian National Congress, or they could go peacefully and diplomatically with Gandhi, the little old man who pledged to never fight, resist, coerce, or in any way violate the sensibilities of the British Empire. Naturally, they went with Gandhi, as in many ways he was the perfect poster child of revolution: a revolutionary who held the utmost respect for his oppressors and was willing to engage in any number of inconveniences or hardships in order to win his opponents hearts and minds. Thus, the British nobility made friends with Gandhi and his consort and claimed that it was his struggle, the Satyagraha struggle, which had done the trick and successfully secured independence for India. George Orwell, a young British police officer during the Indian Independence Movement, observed, " Gandhi made it easier for the British to rule India, because his influence was always against taking any action that would make any difference."

Think of the repercussions if the violent resistors Bhagat Singh or Subhas Chandra Bose would have been hailed as successful revolutionaries, if the dozens of colonized nations held by European nations around the world at the time would have seen a violent revolution as the key to their freedom, as well. No, that would never do. Gandhi was the perfect role-model for national liberation, as he never truly threatened the British Empire's ability to dominate and exploit in any way and he allowed them to make a graceful departure from their colony. Not only did they make a graceful departure, but they never actually left. In many ways India simply switched from direct colonial rule to indirect neocolonial rule, as the economic disparity, poverty, public health issues, religious violence, women's rights, lack of democratic process, government corruption, and access to education that were so lacking in British India are in many ways worse today than ever before. As Gandhi himself said, " What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

In no way am I condemning or renouncing Gandhi, his teachings, or his life's work, but I think it is important to realize that there are many narratives of history, and choosing to only see and believe one narrative is severely limiting to one's ability to effectively understand and implement effective social change. Trading one oppressor for another is not progress, it is being duped.

Gandhi's and Bhagat's methods of revolution were effective, valid, and successful. Neither one was 'better' than the other; they each played their role in the struggle. The point is that we only know about Gandhi because that is the only story that was deemed suitable for history lessons by the British Empire. We are presented with a very narrow and sanitized version of history because that is the version that is least threatening to Business As Usual. As resistors, we must be willing to see history accurately and in doing so, to see that there are many different approaches and tools for social change that have been effectively used, and must continue to be used. To limit ourselves to only one tool of resistance - nonviolence - is to ignore history, to be ignorant of social progress, and to blindly accept the State narrative of safe, nonthreatening resistance that has been presented to us.

The second major misunderstanding arises from a lack of understanding the functions of globalized capitalism and the ways that a country under neocolonial rule is just as much if not more oppressed as when under direct colonial rule. Gandhi's Satyagraha movement called for much more than just the annexation of India, he had many goals and hopes for the future of India- none of which were actualized. Gandhi called for a) India's complete economic, political, and social independence from Great Britain; b) a country of religious tolerance, with Muslims and Hindus peacefully occupying the same communities; c) an end to the concepts of class division and caste, especially in regards to the 'untouchables'; and d) the creation of local economies and the building of self-reliant communities, ultimately leading to a self-sufficient country with minimal imports.

India is still deeply dependent on European and American banks, corporations, universities, and schools of thought. The creation of the "Muslim-state" of Pakistan (now Pakistan and Bangladesh) was a terrible event, as thousands of people lost their lives during the violent separation and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes, possessions, and cultural heritage due to the sudden and violent manner in which the plan was carried out, creating tensions and wounds which are still festering today.

The social stratification which Gandhi deplored has only deepened since the British "Quit India," as economic disparity is currently the worst in the recorded history of India - as the country's one hundred richest people own assets equivalent to one fourth of the GDP. [5]

The caste system was never abolished, and the new untouchables are merely those who have been pushed to the bottom of the vicious food chain which capitalism must have in order to survive. In many ways it is worse than the old untouchable class, as the untouchables of Gandhi's age weren't forced into exploitative global trade agreements, having their lands stolen from them for the sake of building mega-dams, or committing suicide in mass numbers due to their crops being stolen from them thanks to Monsanto's violently exploitative activities. [6]

As far as self-reliance goes, India is far from Gandhi's ideal, as India is the world's 10th largest importer, and many of those imports are unnecessary and even harmful to the country- fertilizers, edible oils, food grains, and industrial machinery.

To put it simply, the British Empire never really left India, as they left their impression deeply upon the country. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister after independence, was educated in London and deeply inculcated in the logic of empire. The Indian National Congress was founded by A.O. Hume, an Englishman, and all of its founding members were educated in Britain. In many ways, India never received her independence; she merely traded one oppressor for another with a darker skin tone, she traded masks, and continues today to live under the yoke of Western capitalism and imperialism.

One last, yet extremely important point to understand is that Gandhi himself was not a strict pacifist, as some would present him, as he stated, " I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence….I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour [7] " as well as, " it is better to be violent if there is violence in our hearts than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence." [8] These quotes show that Gandhi understood, at least in moments, the important difference between pacifism and active nonviolence, and he recognized that pacifism driven by fear is ineffective and worse than doing nothing. Unfortunately, his Satyagraha campaign did not echo these sentiments, as Gandhi repeatedly called off potentially successful strikes and marches whenever the Indian people would respond with violence in response to State oppression. He refused to understand that the Indian people needed to decolonize themselves from their oppressor by baptizing themselves in violence in order to successfully engage in active nonviolence. He would not allow the followers of his independence movement the opportunity to remove fear from their hearts by fighting their oppressors in order that they might effectively engage in Satyagraha. This led to many of his followers abandoning the cause and taking up arms with the openly violent independence movements, ultimately weakening his movement and the overall struggle [9].

None of this should be seen as an attempt to discredit or dismiss the teachings and actions of Gandhi and the Satyagraha movement, but an effort to more fully understand the mechanics of resistance, and the many ways that the State fools us into thinking that we are making progress and change, when we are merely switching masks, trading partners, and continuing the same old 12,000 year-old waltz with oppression, violence, and exploitation


Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in South Africa, also to a wealthy political family, and also receiving a prestigious education. Unlike Gandhi, however, Mandela started on his path to political activism much earlier on- getting suspended from high school for starting a boycott to protest the quality of food served there and shortly thereafter joining the radical African National Congress (ANC). By the time he was 32, Mandela had risen to the rank of National Executive of the ANC and was credited with bringing a radical and revolutionary atmosphere to the organization. Despite his revolutionary zeal, Mandela remained decidedly nonviolent in his beliefs and actions, as he was heavily influenced by the legacy and supposed successes of Gandhi's campaign (remember, this was exactly the effect the British government wanted to have on aspiring revolutionaries.) One event early on in his political career quickly changed his mind on the effectiveness of nonviolence: the destruction of the beloved city of Sophiatown in 1955.

Sophiatown was a lively cultural center in South Africa in the mid-19th century, and it boasted a population of nearly 60,000 mostly black residents and was growing rapidly. Too rapidly, in fact, for the booming town of color made the white residents of nearby suburbs of Westdene and Newlands nervous and uncomfortable. The growing Sophiatown made white families nervous, as it was hard to maintain their fantasies of justice, equality, and civilized culture with such blatant oppression right down the street from them. The dominant class, in a strategy that laid the groundwork for our current urban gentrification movement, decided to forcibly evacuate the city. The South African government sent letters to the enraged residents of Sophiatown, informing them of their mandatory evacuation to a shantytown of matchbox houses set up by the government. Mandela and several other prominent leaders in the ANC saw this is as an excellent opportunity to practice the principles of Satyagraha in a mass demonstration and mobilize the people to action.

Mandela set about organizing thousands of people to resist the evacuation, and was committed to remaining nonviolent no matter what happened. On February 9, 1955, two thousand heavily armed policemen began the evacuation, while bulldozers demolished houses, businesses, and churches. Those who resisted were viciously beaten, despite their cries for mercy and dedication to Satyagraha. The State brutally and methodically evacuated and destroyed the entire city until it was as if it had never existed. An entire city, a home for thousands of people, was completely wiped off of the map, simply because it was too close to white people. The nonviolent protest was a complete failure.

In the aftermath of Sophiatown, Mandela saw that the Apartheid government would give no ear to the cries for justice and equality with simple appeals to conscience. Mandela realized that without violent resistance, without significant pressure, the State had no incentive to listen to the wishes of the people and therefore no motivation to be influenced by nonviolent actions. He realized that his cause didn't have a Bhagat Singh or Subhas Chandra Bose that was providing the violent counterpart to the nonviolent movement, and so he decided to create it.

Umkhonto We Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, was formed as the radical, direct-action counterpart to the ANC. They conducted many violent actions, mostly bombings, directed at the Apartheid government over the approximately 30 years of their existence. Mandela's role in Umkhonto was actually quite limited, as he was arrested in 1964 and therefore left his leadership role in the organization. During Mandela's incredible 27-year prison stint, he never wavered from his firm commitment towards the liberation of his country(wo)men from racism and oppression, and emerged from his incarceration an even stronger and more dedicated leader. He was greeted by a very different South Africa than the one he left. The Apartheid government was weakened by decades of violent and nonviolent resistance and, spurred on by international pressure, was ready to begin diplomatic negotiations. Mandela, realizing that the time for violence had passed, effectively switched tactics and used the tool of nonviolence to eventually topple the Apartheid State in 1994, being elected the first Prime Minister of the nation the following year.

Mandela's story and legacy of resistance can be a confusing one for many students of social change because of his change of tactics throughout his political career. Unlike many other resistors at the time, Mandela realized that nonviolence was not the only tool for social change; it was a useful tactic that could be very effective when the time was right. It is for this reason that many who put him in the same category of Gandhi and MLK Jr. are slightly off in their ideological assessment of him. Mandela was never a strict practitioner of nonviolence, but saw it as a tactic to be used when appropriate, as he stated several times throughout his career. In response to a CNN reporter comparing him to Gandhi and MLK Jr., he said, " I was not like them. For them, nonviolence was a principle. For me, it was a tactic. And when the tactic wasn't working, I reversed it and started over."[10]

Mandela was also fully willing to re-engage in violent struggle after his release from prison in 1990 if nonviolent methods were not working, as he said in one of his first speeches upon his release from prison, " The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle. [11] " Mandela, unlike Gandhi, understood the limits of nonviolence and made adjustments when appropriate. It was because of his dedication to his cause and his willingness to adapt to the changing situations at hand that made him a successful revolutionary and a role-model for resistance groups all over the world.

Despite Mandela's many successes and advancements, we see again the two factors that create misunderstanding about Gandhi's campaign, although on a slightly different level: a) a lack of understanding the role that other, more violent political organizations played in the success of the nonviolent movement; and b) the lack of real social change post-Apartheid.

As we just discussed, Mandela realized that nonviolence was not working due to a lack of any real pressure on the government to dismantle Apartheid. If any State could be pleaded with on a rational level to end their oppression and exploitation, then that's exactly what I would be doing right now, as opposed to writing this book.

As Mandela realized with the tragic destruction of Sophiatown, the State speaks only one language - power (aka money). When a State's ability to oppress is threatened, when its power is taken from it, then it will talk. When its ability to exploit, dominate, and convert life into piles of money is in jeopardy, then negotiations will commence. Up until that point, nonviolent tactics are largely futile. Mandela realized this, and therefore he created Umkhonto We Sizwe to provide the pressure that his group needed to carry out their goal of liberation.

The lack of social progress post-revolution is not as stark as it was in India, but there are still some gross disparities that we need to look at and understood if we are to learn important lessons for our own resistance efforts. Many of the inequalities that existed under Apartheid are still apparent, and some are even worse. Black South Africans today make up 90% of the country's poor, although they make up 79.5% of the population. [12] The number of people living on less than $1 a day has doubled from 2 million in 1994 to 4 million in 2006.[13] Over 70% of the land in South Africa is owned by whites, despite promises from the ANC to redistribute 30% of that land. This gross land inequality leaves over a third of the population living on just 13% of the land. Political repression, although no longer being used to enforce strictly defined racial segregation, is still being used in incredibly unjust and oppressive ways, as many activists who oppose the economic and political decisions of the ANC face beatings, torture, and execution at the hands of rogue police-officers and militias.

What is the reason for this sad state of affairs? Quite simply, the existing South African government was built on a several-thousand year old system of oppression, injustice, racism, and capitalism that cannot be overhauled simply by electing a black prime minister, regardless of his intentions or motives.

The same fallacy can be currently seen in the United States by those who claim that we live in a "post-racial society" due to the election of Barack Obama. Anyone who has taken a peek at the ever-growing Prison Industrial Complex, experienced the terrible living conditions of our ghettoes and projects, or witnessed the continued casual executions of black teenagers in the streets of the US can attest to this fallacy. The ANC's radical communist agenda became greatly watered down towards the end of the anti-Apartheid struggle, as capitalism's temptations of wealth and power were too great for many of the radical leaders and they compromised their struggle, with disastrous results.

Mandela is a fascinating figure because unlike many other revolutionary leaders, he 'played both sides of the field.' He never restricted himself to violent or nonviolent tactics; he used each when they were appropriate. Mandela took Gandhi's philosophy and evaluated it for what it was- an excellent tactic to use for social change, under the correct circumstances. In many ways, Mandela and his movement was more successful than Gandhi's due to Mandela's understanding of the nature of the State and his realization that ineffective nonviolent actions are not progress, but are actually unacceptable losses in a fight for justice. This stance made him unpopular with many, and has led to attempts to 'whitewash' him posthumously as an advocate for pacifism and nonviolence, when in fact he was unapologetically committed to violent resistance, and remained so until the day he died.


Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in the state of Georgia in the United States in 1929 to a middle class, deeply religious family, and had a fairly inconsequential childhood, save for his deep wrestling with questions of faith, philosophy, and religion at a precocious age. He was an outstanding student; he entered college at age 15, earned his Doctorate in Philosophy when he was only 23, and accepted the role of pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama by the time he was 25. King's early life and rise through the educational system, although not entirely free from prejudice and discrimination, was very removed from the extreme racism and oppression that his fellow African-Americans faced everyday in the Jim Crow atmosphere of Alabama in the mid-19th century. Although initially shocked and horrified by the daily instances of oppressive violence that he saw around him, King turned his outrage into action and quickly became involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), as his father was head of the Atlanta NAACP branch for many years and young King had chaired the NAACP youth membership committee in Atlanta, under his father.

King was thrust very quickly and very deeply into the civil rights struggle. Less than a year after he had arrived in Montgomery, Rosa Parks and several other activists made their courageous stand against the system of segregated busing in the city with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King was instrumental in planning and organizing the year-long boycott, and due to his prominent role he was threatened, assaulted, had his home bombed, and was arrested several times. Throughout the long and incredibly difficult year, King showed himself to be a wise, bold, and competent leader, and by the end of the successful nonviolent boycott King was a national figure and a spokesman for civil rights.

In 1957 King, along with several other civil rights activists, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that aimed to unite Christian churches in the South with the purpose of conducting nonviolent acts of civil disobedience to end racial segregation. Under the leadership of King, the SCLC successfully carried out many nonviolent acts of civil disobedience such as boycotts, strikes, and marches, as well as pushing for legislative and legal reform alongside the NAACP and other civil rights groups.

Over the next ten years King continued to expound his theory of nonviolence, drawing heavily from the teachings of Yeshua (Jesus) in the Christian Bible, Gandhi's Satyagraha campaign in India, and the anti-authoritarian musings of American transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau. King actually visited India in 1959, wanting to learn more about Satyagraha and the incredible teachings of the Mahatma. He tried to visit South Africa to visit Mandela as well, but was denied a visa.

After more than a decade of intense struggle, King came to realize that true justice was about more than just racial segregation. He saw the deep roots of capitalism, imperialism, and racism running throughout the country's history, and realized that it would take more than changing a few laws to undo such a pervasive system. He realized that poor whites were just as oppressed under capitalism as blacks were; he realized that unless the machinery itself was completely replaced, the vast majority of people living in the US would always be subjected to injustice and oppression, regardless of the color of their skin.

He attempted to address these issues in the best way he could, criticizing capitalism, openly speaking against the Vietnam war, advocating for social welfare programs, and organizing a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" in 1963, which turned out to be much less effective and revolutionary than King intended it to be due to an incredible amount of co-optation and betrayal in the ranks of the SCLC. Regardless of the toned-down message of the march, it was a remarkable success, and marked the tipping point of the civil rights struggle for many.

King, determined that the systemic injustice of the American government needed to be directly addressed, tried again to organize a mass-action in 1968, which he called the "Poor People's Campaign." It was to be a mass occupation of Washington, D.C., a multi-racial army of the poor that would descend upon the country's capital and demand an end to capitalist exploitation and oppression of all people, regardless of color, gender, or socioeconomic status. His plan was widely criticized and denounced as too radical, revolutionary, and reactionary. Many of his friends and coworkers within the SCLC threatened to leave if the occupation was carried out, and some did. Readers Digest denounced the march as an "insurrection" and many corporate media outlets began criticizing it the moment they heard about it.

Clearly, King had struck a chord deep within the heart of the beast, and the beast lashed out in fear. King was assassinated before he could see the plan to completion, and many believe that it was his insistence on carrying through with the occupation which led to his assassination. The Poor Peoples Campaign did eventually happen, but as it happened in the wake of King's death it had none of the spirit of defiance and intensity which King would have brought to it. The already crippled campaign was then subjected to FBI infiltration, disruption, and antagonization and disbanded within six weeks, threatening no-one and changing nothing.

King died at the young age of 39, after only 14 years of resistance. He might have successfully challenged the powerful systemic oppression of the US government while using nonviolent methods, had he had the chance. We will never know. What we do know is that he is widely hailed as a leader in the Civil Rights struggle and a champion of nonviolent principles and activism. Proponents of nonviolence and pacifism proudly claim King's legacy as proof of the effectiveness of nonviolence, and any high school history book in the US bears at least one picture of him, usually with the honorific title, "Leader of Civil Rights movement in the 1960's." But is that the whole story?

We will repeat the process which we used to critique Gandhi's and Mandela's movements with the two very important questions: a) what was the role that violent organizations played in helping the nonviolent movement?; and b) what real social change has taken place as a result of the supposed success of the Civil Rights era?

I believe the role of violence during the Civil Rights era is more well-known than that of the Indian independence movement or the anti-apartheid struggle, but I don't think many are aware of the true extent of the violent resistance groups in the US during that time. There were perhaps hundreds of resistance groups that were active during the 1960s and 70s, with issues as diverse as women's rights, LGBTQ rights, indigenous rights, environmental protection, migrant workers' rights, anti-war campaigns, and of course, the Civil Rights campaign. The sheer number of organizations that were actively working towards ending segregation and the Jim Crow laws in the South is staggering; an exhaustive list would be, well, exhausting, so we will only mention the groups that openly advocated for violent resistance. The Black Panthers, the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, the Nation of Islam, and the Student National Coordinating Committee were all organizations that participated in or advocated for violent direct-action in the name of ending racial discrimination in the US, not to mention to incredible amount of reactionary, unorganized violence that often erupted in the form of riots in the ghettoes of the nation's urban centers ( Rochester, NY July 1964; New York City, NY July 1964; Philadelphia, PA August 1964; Jersey city, NJ August 1964; Paterson, NJ August 1964; Elizabeth, NJ August 1964; Chicago, IL August 1964; Los Angeles, CA August 1965; Cleveland, OH July 1966; San Francisco, CA 1966; Chicago, IL June 1966; Newark, NJ July 1967; Detroit, MI July 1967; Plainfield, NJ July 1967; Milwaukee, WI July 1967; Minneapolis, MN August 1967; Orangeburg, SC February 1968; Baltimore, MD April 1968; Washington, DC April 1968; New York City, NY April 1968; Chicago, IL May 1968; Louisville, KY May 1968; Pittsburgh, PA May 1968; Summit, IL May 1968; Augusta, GA May 1970; Jackson, MS may 1970; Asbury Park, NJ July 1970; Los Angeles, CA August 1970; Camden, NJ 1971; Pensacola, FL February 1972 ).

The thousands of bombings, riots, kidnappings, and arsons acted out on the US State during the Civil Rights movement was no incidental matter. Every violent action was instrumental in creating the eventual signing of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Bill, and the eventual desegregation of public spaces in the Southern states. As we saw in India and South Africa, the State has no motivation to end oppressive practices unless significant pressure is put on it to do so. Clearly, there was more than significant pressure for the US State to end racial segregation due to violent resistance. To claim that the social progress made during the Civil Rights era was due to nonviolence only is to ignore an incredible amount of historical evidence to the contrary and to buy into the inaccurate narrative of resistance that the State is presenting to us.

And what of effective social change? Can't black people ride buses and vote now? Don't we have a black president? Aren't we a post-racial society? The answer to this is very deep and complex, and I won't even try to completely illustrate the inaccuracy of this belief here, however I will provide you with a short story and a few statistics to illustrate that America has barely moved on from its deeply racist history, if at all.

From the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to 2013, the American prison system has grown over 1000 percent, with African-Americans making up over one-third of that number. There are currently over 2,500,000 inmates incarcerated in the US, more than any other nation in the world, per capita. One in every thirty-one adults in the US is either behind bars, on parole, or on probation, and one in every three black men will spend time in Federal Prison in their lifetime[14]. Lest one think that these individuals are violent offenders who are in prison for the good of the community, know that over 67% of those currently serving time in Federal Prisons are doing so for nonviolent drug charges, and over half of those are serving time for their first offense[15]. And lest one think that our prisons are free of racial bias or discrimination, know that although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses are Latino or black, and black men and women are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white neighbors.

Not only are grossly disproportionate amounts of young black and brown men in prison, but they are being exploited for their labor while in prison, effectively creating massive for-profit slave-labor plantations. Corporations such as Starbucks, Nintendo, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Costco, Victoria's Secret, JCPenney, JanSport, Boeing, and Dell pay inmates 12 cents an hour to build desks, license plates, body armor, coffee cups, clothes, benches, and shrink-wrapped software, while the same jobs outside the prison would earn a laborer $10-100 an hour [16]. Still not convinced? Let's take a step further into this and examine the ways that the PIC intentionally exploits young black men for profit.

There is no other reason in the world except blatant racism and exploitation that can explain the terrible case of Edward Clary, whom we will use to illustrate the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the PIC preys on young black men. In 1995, just two months after his eighteenth birthday, Clary was stopped and searched in the St. Louis airport upon returning home from a trip to visit some friends, one of whom persuaded Clary to carry back some crack cocaine for him. The police officers who stopped him reported that he "looked like" a drug dealer, despite his clean-cut and professional appearance. This illustrates the first level of this racially discriminatory system- the fact that police officers are freely given license to racially profile and discriminate against whomever they please without reason or probable cause. Clary, who had given no reason for a search (other than his black skin), was arrested upon discovery of the crack and convicted in a federal court under federal laws which punish crack offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. This means that because Clary was caught with more than two ounces of crack, he was sentenced to a minimum of ten years in federal prison, despite the fact that Clary was a first-time offender and this was a nonviolent crime [17].

This illustrates the second level of the "New Jim Crow" system- the incredible disparity in sentencing protocols for stereotypically "black" drugs like crack vs. stereotypically "white" drugs such as cocaine. By instituting a law that punishes crack 100 times more severely than cocaine, the Federal government can appear to be color-blind, although they know full well that approximately 93% of crack offenders are black and 5% are white. By creating, enforcing, and refusing to change laws such as these, the State ensures that our prisons will be full of healthy black males, ready to build our great and noble society for only twelve cents an hour[18].

If Clary survives his prison term with a healthy mind and body, he will get to experience the third way that this system perpetuates injustice- the labyrinth of legal maze that offenders must somehow crawl through upon the release of their sentence, making life after prison nearly impossible for those without strong families and communities to support them. The system is undoubtedly set up to keep people in, not to empower them to stay out. Even for the few that do manage to stay out, their lives are forever marred by the title of 'felon', unable to vote, receive public housing, get federal funds for schooling, get loans to start businesses, or receive employment in many careers and fields. 'Felon' is a brand of shame and second-class citizenship that is carried the rest of one's life, all for carrying a plant extract around in his pocket.

The simple fact that an eighteen year-old black man can be put in a prison slave-labor camp for at least ten years for possessing drugs, destroying any chance of his contributing to society and benefitting his community, should be a clear enough sign that something is horribly wrong. The PIC is just one facet of our not-so-post-racial society. Poverty and food insecurity are rampant among black communities, racist "stand your ground" and "stop and frisk" laws along with trigger-happy police officers and neighborhood watchmen claim the lives of hundreds of black teenagers every year, and our Latino/a neighbors to the south are beginning to feel the effects of our deeply racist culture that must direct its hateful energy somewhere [19].

To come back to the question at hand: yes, there are many important changes that have taken place in the US in regards to civil rights, and in no way am I diminishing the Civil Rights movement and its various legal and social successes. To be quite blunt, however, is it considered progress that one out of every three black men in America will spend time in prison during his life? Is it an advancement for civil rights that although gangs of armed KKK members don't parade around our streets at night, equally racist and dangerous police officers do? Is it success that to be a black person in America means that a police officer can stop you for any reason, at any time, and charge you with any crime they deem fit, whether or not you are guilty of it? I do not think so, nor do I think Dr. King would think so. Again, regrettably, it seems as if the supposed progress we are making is really just another mask, another form of the same old, strangely familiar form of racism and oppression that we have been fighting for thousands of years, and shows no sign of dying anytime soon.

King was absolutely a brave and dedicated man, a resistance leader who left many words to follow and actions to imitate. His speeches and letters remain hallmarks of resistance literature, and his commitment to his ideals of nonviolence and equality are to be respected. We must ask, however, why we only ever hear about King when we hear about the Civil Rights struggle in school or in the media? There were hundreds if not thousands of authors, activists, musicians, pastors, revolutionaries, and public leaders calling for the dismantling of racist and oppressive systems of government at the time, so why is King given the title of "Champion of the Civil Rights struggle?"

The answer again lies in the image that the State needs to portray. King, like Gandhi, was the perfect poster-child for revolution, at least for a while. He was a quiet, respectful, educated, privileged man of God who refused to use violence against the State. He was what the State wanted all civil rights activists to be: passionate, yet restrained. Determined, yet conservative. Reformatory, not revolutionary. When King broke this mold in the last few years of his life and began to point out the true cause of the plight of the black person in the US, he was immediately ignored, ostracized, censored, and eventually killed. Nowhere in popular history books, TV programs, or memorial services will you hear mention of his radical anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, or anti-war stances. The last few years of his life have simply been erased. He must be presented as a moderate social reformer, a pastor who only wanted to end racism, a father who simply had a dream that his children should be able to play peaceably with white children.

Contrary to popular depictions of him, King understood the necessity of violence in the case of self-defense. He, along with many of his followers, stockpiled many firearms in his home and carried them with him when he traveled. When his home was firebombed in 1956 he applied for a concealed carry permit, but was denied due to the fact that he was black. Whenever he traveled he was surrounded with armed guards who would not hesitate to use them in case of an attack on the preacher.[20] King also refuted accusations of pacifism, saying, " I am no doctrinaire pacifist. I have tried to embrace a realistic pacifism...violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal...the principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence" and stating his understanding of, "violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously." [21]

Looking at King's life, his teachings, and his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, it becomes immediately clear that he is not quite what the media or history books would have us believe him to be. He contributed a great deal to the ending of overtly discriminatory laws and practices, yet the contributions of thousands of others are strangely absent. Quotes from his speeches on ending racism are flaunted on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and postage stamps, but his sermons on the absurdity and immorality of the Vietnam War and US foreign policy are curiously censored. I believe if we were to revive the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we would find someone who is an outspoken critic of capitalism, imperialism, war, racism, exploitation, and oppression, someone who understands the important difference between disengaged pacifism and effective nonviolent action, and someone who is willing to live and die according to his convictions and beliefs.

The Narrative

Gandhi, Mandela, and King were all important, brilliant, courageous, and effective leaders of resistance movements in the past century. They were all relatively successful in their missions of social justice, and are all held up as beacons of social change and nonviolence. Two of them of were killed for their beliefs, and the third paid the heavy price of 27 years in prison and narrowly escaped several assassination attempts. Upon close examination of their stories, however, two important facts became glaringly obvious: a) they were all helped out in their struggles by violent counterparts to the nonviolent movements, in that violent resistance played a major role in helping create the atmosphere that allowed the movement to be carried through with nonviolent resistance; and b) many of the desired and fought-for social changes were never actually instituted, and in some cases are even worse today than before.

This is indeed an unfortunate and uncomfortable reality, and not one that I take pleasure in presenting to you, as it casts a shadow over the few bright spots of hope and truth which illuminate the long, dark corridor of history. This shadow should not be seen as an attempt to minimize or dismiss these three great men and their heroic actions, but rather to draw our attention to what that shadow might be. As we look closely at the shadow, which seems to run through the course of human history, it begins to take shape and look familiar to us. I'm hoping that you recognize it by now. It is the incredibly powerful, pervasive, adaptable, and oppressive presence of the State.

The State doesn't care if India is run by Indians or British, as long as it is allowed to continue building massive dams that displace millions of farmers and importing genetically modified grains that are destroying food security and wiping out biological diversity. The State doesn't care if South Africa is run by leaders with brown or white skin, as long as it is allowed to continue working tens of thousands of South Africans to death in diamond, coal, and gold mines. The State doesn't care if Black Americans can vote or ride on buses, as long as it is allowed to continue operating plantations of young black men who will work for almost nothing. The State doesn't care if you protest the war, oil pipelines, environmental regulations, international trade agreements, or the rights of people to marry people of their own gender, as long as you allow it to continue killing, raping, stealing, and destroying life on this planet at whatever level it determines necessary to continue its existence.

As long as the State (aka Western culture, aka Business As Usual, aka globalized capitalism, aka imperialism) remains unchallenged, it will continue to adapt and grow until it has eliminated us as a species and our planet as a functioning ecosystem. Protest away, vote for your preferred flavor of congressman, wave your signs, call your senators, tie yourself to walls and sit in roads, engage in direct-action, do whatever you feel you must, but do not allow this system to continue its trajectory another day without feeling the full weight of your resistance. Do not buy the lie that nonviolence is the only historically successful way of defeating injustice, nor the lie that violence is the only way. They each have their role and their function as elements of resistance. Sometimes it is better and more effective to be nonviolent; sometimes it is better and more effective to be violent.

Before we close this chapter, I want to acknowledge that we have entirely ignored hundreds of revolutions and resistance movements which have taken place in the past century, many of which were almost entirely nonviolent and are widely hailed as examples of successful nonviolent resistance, such as the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, and the Peaceful Revolution in Germany in 1989. I wanted to use this chapter to illustrate how three highly esteemed figures of nonviolence represented the two important principles of a) violence enabling nonviolence to work, and b) understanding the difference between progress and mask-changing. I encourage you to do your own research and see how these two principles apply to the many other situations that I was not able to effectively cover in this chapter. I feel confident that although there might not exist such blatant examples as I have illustrated here, you will find these two principles at work in some form or another in every successful social movement and revolution throughout history. Don't take my word for it, though; go do your own research!


[1] "Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution" - Mark Juergensmeyer (2007)

[2] "Mohandas Gandhi's Letter to Adolf Hitler" - M.K. Gandhi, written on July 23, 1939

[3] "Gandhi on Jews and the Middle East: A Non-Violent Look on Conflict and Violence" - M.K. Gandhi, written on Nov. 20, 1938

[4] "Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture)" - Stokely Carmichael, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell (2003)

[5] "Capitalism: A Ghost Story" - Arundhati Roy (2014)

[6] "Power Politics" - Arundhati Roy (2002)

[7] "Nonviolence in Peace and War, Volume 1" - M.K. Gandhi (1942)

[8] "Nonviolence in Peace and War, Volume 1" - M.K. Gandhi (1942)

[9] "The Indian Struggle, 1920-1942" - Subhas Chandra Bose (1942)

[10] http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1312/05/acl.01.html

[11] Nelson Mandela's Address To Rally In Cape Town On His Release From Prison - February 11, 1990

[12] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2004/05/safr-m21.html

[13] "Race Trouble: Identity and Inequality in Post-Apartheid South Africa" - Durrheim, K (2011)

[14] "The New Jim Crow" - Michelle Alexander (2010)

[15] http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/incarcerationofconsciousness.html

[16] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2008/07/what-do-prisoners-make-victorias-secret

[17] "The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America" - Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson (2004)

[18] "Race to Incarcerate" - Marc Mauer (2006)

[19] http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/incarcerationofconsciousness.html

[20] "This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made The Civil Rights Movement Possible" - Charles E. Cobb Jr. (2014)

[21] "The Social Organization of Violence" - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1959)