Resistance That Is Not Passive: A History of Nonviolence in the Struggle for Equality

Siracusa charts the legacy of nonviolence, leading up to its use as a prominent political tool in the Civil Rights Movement.

By Duncan R. Jamieson

Nonviolence before King: The Politics of Being and the Black Freedom Struggles, by Anthony C. Siracusa. North Carolina, 2021. 247p bibl index, 9781469662992 $95.00, 9781469663005 $29.95, 9781469663012 $23.99

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

Nonviolence Before King book cover

For too many Black Americans, the reality of being, simply existing, continues to be a dream deferred. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that the arc of the universe was long but that it bent toward justice. Still, his dream in 1963 of all children being able to play and mingle together has yet to be realized. Looking at the history of race relations in the United States, one has to wonder about the shape of the arc. It seems as though for every two steps forward, the nation simultaneously takes one step back in relation to civil rights, with the country presently stuck one step back.

The achievement of peace and racial harmony is an evolutionary process, which takes time. Unfortunately, humans tend to have short attention spans. They seize on a problem, seek an immediate solution, believe the issue is resolved, and move on to the next major challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic is a recent example. Although Operation Warp Speed accelerated the development and distribution of a vaccine, many Americans refused the vaccine, including some in the African American community. This vaccine hesitancy has been denigrated by many, especially those feeling the “COVID fatigue” from repeated surges. However, it is important to note the traumatic legacies of historical events, such as the Tuskegee experiment, coupled with the lack of consistent support for civil rights that contribute to this hesitancy among Black Americans.

In Nonviolence Before King, Siracusa (senior director, Inclusive Cultures and Initiatives, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder) considers the importance of historical legacy in focusing on the genealogy of nonviolence as a political tool in the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality. Although the end of the Civil War ushered in constitutional amendments ending 246 years of chattel slavery, acknowledging citizenship for all those freed and granting Black males the right to vote to protect these rights, enforcement was lax. To maintain control and keep Black people subservient, white Americans in the South and the North developed segregation—de jure below the Mason Dixon line, which had the force of law, and de facto in the North, which operated with the force of custom. Instead of freedom, Black people faced sharecropping, tenancy, peonage, and the Ku Klux Klan. Attempts to exert independence often ended in lynching. Though some resisted this new form of exclusion, seeking a fighting chance to exist freely, most simply tried to survive in a white world that granted them few or no opportunities.

Still today, far too many Black people who live in the United States are unable to enjoy Thomas Jefferson’s ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all are ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Considering the figure of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of the movement that brought down segregation in the United States, beginning with the fight against racist public transportation policies in 1950s Montgomery, AL, Siracusa explores how his movement grew from work that began much earlier in the twentieth century. Nonviolence Before King examines the racial divide in American society, according to which the white, dominant group continues to deny full freedom to those who are different because of skin color. Still today, far too many Black people who live in the United States are unable to enjoy Thomas Jefferson’s ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Unfortunately, white Americans by and large have yet to learn the lessons of discrimination’s damaging effects, so clearly illustrated even by children’s books such as Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches (1953). Thus, despite significant gains by individuals, Black Americans as a community are still largely unable to enjoy the ability to exist freely and without prejudice. One need look no further than the murder of George Floyd.

As Siracusa argues, the separate yet interconnected ideas of nonviolence and direct action must be combined into one movement if there is to be an extension of civil rights. As long as de jure segregation went unchallenged, it controlled Black people’s lives, prohibiting freedom. To reinforce white supremacy, lynching became a common occurrence from 1890 until the end of World War II; a conservative estimate suggests that, on average, one lynching a week occurred during this time. In the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the lawyer Atticus Finch takes a lamp and a chair to the jail to look out for his client, Tom Robinson, a Black man, against an oncoming lynch mob. The mob disperses, but most Black Americans in similar situations were not as fortunate. Early in the twentieth century, civil rights activists armed themselves for protection from those intent on violence. Considering this, it is not surprising that as a young professor at Atlanta University, W. E. B. DuBois kept a shotgun and buckshot ammunition in his office. Like other activists, he did not accept the pacifist beliefs of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), established during World War I when people believed it to be the war to end all wars. 

The FOR brought together white pacifists intent on preserving peace and ending all that separates people. The Quaker Edward Evans became the first secretary and helped establish its core principle, the politics of being, to confront the violence in the United States. Though focused on the elimination of war, the FOR meshed with the Social Gospel of Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch, who established outreach programs for newcomers to American cities who found adjusting and making ends meet difficult. Many of these newcomers were Black, which meant more separation from the mainstream. Some FOR leaders saw segregation adding to the violence further dividing American society.

Rather than passivity, [Howard Thurman’s ideology] demanded nonviolent direct action. That became a way of life, spreading to those who faced marginalization because of different beliefs and lifestyles.

The FOR accepted Albert Schweitzer’s historical Jesus who lived and died as a revolutionary Jew resisting Roman dominance in first-century Palestine. During his second year at Morehouse College, Howard Thurman, who became a prominent civil rights activist, joined the FOR even though he understood the failing of a pacifist philosophy that kept Black people from resisting white control. He followed Jesus’s religious ideology “that was nonviolent but forceful, and one that might cultivate and use the hope, courage, and resilience required to transform a cruel and violent Jim Crow society” (pp. 9–10). Rather than passivity, it demanded nonviolent direct action. That became a way of life, spreading to those who faced marginalization because of different beliefs and lifestyles. To deepen his own philosophy and beliefs, Thurman drew on Mohandas Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha, a determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. The first Black dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, Thurman became a mentor to the doctoral student Martin Luther King Jr.

Many others joined Thurman in refining and carrying forward nonviolent direct action. Howard Kester organized interracial conferences for college students in the 1920s and 1930s to further civil rights. A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded the March on Washington Movement in 1941, forcing President Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order providing Black Americans equal opportunities in the burgeoning defense industries. The Reverend James M. Lawson Jr. became a leader in combining nonviolence with direct action, adopting labor’s tactic of the sit-in. Approaching nonviolent direct action as a way of life rather than just a means to attack segregation, he became the first to argue in favor of nonviolent civil disobedience tied to direct action to end Black dehumanization. Others, such as Bayard Rustin, Pauli Murray, A. J. Mustoe, Benjamin Mays, John Lewis, and Rufus Jones also played key roles in developing and furthering nonviolent direct action. Together, these men and women, along with countless others whose names are not recorded, made being Black in the United States easier. Directly or indirectly, they all had an influence on King, who represents the face of the modern Civil Rights Movement. As Siracusa forcefully concludes, the history of nonviolent direct action has deep roots in American society that predated King and continues to push the United States toward becoming a more just society.

Summing Up: Recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – Political Science – U.S. Politics

Duncan R. Jamieson is a professor of history at Ashland University. He has a PhD in American intellectual history from Michigan State University.