In the documentary _Eyes on the Prize_, John Lewis- an attendee of the 1960 Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-In, regales the use of nonviolence in their fight for racial equality, saying “We took our seats in a very orderly, peaceful fashion…We just sit there, and we continue to sit all day long… But for me, I’ll tell you; it was like being involved in a holy crusade. It became a badge of honor” (PBS). The Civil Rights Movement, which began in 1954, was so deeply impactful largely in part to the unusual nature of its participant’s actions against their opposition. Scarce physical tactics or retaliation was threatened against the white opposition on the black insurgent’s behalf in order to achieve what they sought. Instead, the African Americans took a stance of nonviolence as their weapon of choice, hoping to reach a middle ground of peace between all of the nation’s races. Some of the historical and structural causes at the core of this stance were the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr., the organized fight to dismantle long-standing norms of racial segregation within the white communities, and the effort to raise awareness to a blind political system.
In introducing the concept of social insurgency, Doug McAdam says, “At the close of 1876-1930 period, the southern black population was only just beginning to develop the institutional strength so vital to the generation of social insurgency” (McAdam 94). Historically, black Southern Americans had experienced little to no sense of togetherness as a community; it would take someone or something with enough passion and commitment to bring them together. Obtaining a leader to push such idealistic views for the African American race is practically a requirement to incite immense social change. An organizer is the heart of the movement, because they diffuse centralized direction and coordination (McAdam 47). Having Martin Luther King Jr. as a guiding force behind the Civil Rights Movement was, arguably, the biggest motivation for non-violence as a directive in community institutions during this period.
In his _Letter from Birmingham Jail_, often called the Call for Unity, Dr. King says, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action” (Letter 2). Martin, born and raised in the church, came from humble beginnings; his father, a pastor, sermonized many ideals of a future of peace and the effectiveness of words over physicality. Dr. King went on to preach the ideals of a future based on equality, regardless of skin color or nationality, to his followers. His goals primarily focused on the rise of the nation as a whole- as one- rather than just the rise of the African American race. In his _Chicago Freedom Movement Rally Speech_, he stated, “The Negro needs the white man to free him from his fears.
The white man needs the negro to free him from his guilt” (King). Dr. King was aware that for there to be peace and success for our country, we would have to learn to coexist as one community, instead of having one dominant race in any aspect. In another excerpt from the Chicago rally, he summarizes his intent with nonviolence, saying, “Nonviolence does not mean doing nothing. It does not mean passively accepting evil. It means standing up so strongly with your body and soul that you cannot stoop to the low places of violence and hatred. I am still convinced that nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, it cuts without wounding” (King). In result, his practices flourished, inspiring others to come together and follow in his footsteps. Historically, it also aided that typically only violence had been used to fight battles and/or change things in the past, which had only gotten them to the point they found themselves at then.
The typical day-to-day life of White Southerners consisted of structural norms within the economy, the government, and social customs. Breaking down the barriers of such an established arrangement would never be an easy feat. Blacks in the South knew this and therefore banned together, creating solid organizations such as CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). These organizations were so vital to the cause and effect of the nonviolence movement, as “A conductive political environment only affords the aggrieved population the opportunity for successful insurgent action. It is the resources of the minority community that enable insurgent groups to exploit these opportunities” (McAdam 43).
As could be expected, white oppositionists reacted extremely violently to the changes that were being force-fed to them through the motions of the Civil Rights Movement. The way of life that they’d known for so long was being threatened and as human nature would have it, we are programmed much of the time to fear what we do not know. African American advocates in the South were brutally beaten, humiliated, and killed as a retaliation tactic. Thus, such actions sparked black insurgence to essentially stray away from “feeding the fire”, and instead choose to demonstrate the direction of race relations that they strived for.
In order to achieve results, they had to ban together to strengthen their ideals within the community, thus creating strong indigenous organizations as a backbone for their fight. McAdams states, “…the same dynamic is evident in regard to the relationship between organizational strength and insurgency, with the pace, character, and outcome of collective protest shaping the availability of those organizational resources on which further movement activity depends” (McAdam 53). Thus, as the black insurgent groups gained the social stability, they were able to engrain their nonviolent tactics within a larger audience as they gained support. It was such growth of backing that allowed them to create cracks in the barriers that upheld the white Southerners’ traditions. It was also such groups that were the pillar to sustain an ongoing protest.
The Political Process Model that McAdam lays out considers that “a structure cannot function without the routinized exercise of structural power, and any threat to structural power becomes a threat to that system itself. Thus…any system contains within itself the possibility of a power strong enough to alter it” (McAdam 37). Politically, much opportunity was to be gained for black insurgents through the use of non-violent action. W.E.B. DuBois issued an example of such a possible process of advancement, saying “We need sufficient income for health and home; to supplement our education and recreation; to fight our own crime problem; and above all to finance a continued, planned and intelligent agitation for political, civil, and social equality” (B., DuBois 197).
Since the black population felt so absolutely undermined as a race by the government, it would do them no good to repeat the same actions as those before them when trying to change the way things worked. McAdam discourses that “the point is that any event or broad social process that serves to undermine the calculations and assumptions on which the political establishment is structured occasions a shift in political opportunities” (McAdam 41). In other words, if someone is questioning the way the government works in the first place, already a shift has been sparked in the standards, just by drawing attention to it.
To some degree, all changes involving social movement for the nation are going to imply some level of struggle to change and/or pull for institutionalized power (McAdam 36). Using this explanation in the cause of the non-violent tactics, once the aggrieved population shed light on the issues of political alignment through a peaceful approach, the movement only continued to gain attention and leverage over political opponents. McAdam sums it up when he synopsizes, “the contention is that, far from remaining constant, the organizational resources available to southern blacks increased simultaneously with the expansion in political opportunities” (McAdam 87).
Like most ideals in life, the concept of nonviolence as a promising tactic for change started with one individual. Martin Luther King Jr. not only believed in what he preached, but practiced it in his own life. Through his consistent stand-by of nonviolence, the subsequent growth in support through organizational groups, and said group’s ability to power through the withstanding customs of white folk, nonviolence flourished. In his closing statements, McAdam reminds, “it must be remembered that the movement was able, in a matter of years, to dismantle a thoroughgoing system of caste restrictions that had remained impervious to change for some seventy-five years…These gains are hardly insignificant” (McAdam 232). Therefore, though near the end black insurgency took a turn for the worse, the influence that nonviolence caused on the nation absolutely left a lasting imprint on history.
B., Du Bois W. E. Dusk of Dawn. Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson Organization, 1975.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Chicago Freedom Movement Rally Speech.” Courtesy
of the King Center. Atlanta, Georgia. African-American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp. September 24, 2014.
King, Martin Luther. _Letter from Birmingham Jail_. Stamford, CT: Overbrook, 1968.
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McAdam, Doug. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970.
Chicago: U of Chicago, 1982. Print.
PBS, prod. “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails.” _Eyes on the Prize_. PBS. N.d. _PBS_. Web.
23 Sept. 2014.