Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Information Resource Centre - U.S. Embassy Nigeria , chapter name Nonviolent Thought Through U.S. History

Nonviolent Thought Through U.S. History

01 March 2009

 By Ira Chernus

Rooted in 16th century Europe, the intellectual traditions of nonviolent thought and action were developed in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries and travelled abroad to Asia and Africa. Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.

This article appears in the March 2009 issue of e-Journal USA, Nonviolent Paths to Social Change (



Nonviolent Vietnam War protests in the 1960s followed the example of the civil rights movement.

When people set out to create social change, they have to decide whether to use violence to achieve their aims. Some who opt for nonviolence may have no objection to violence in principle. They just believe that violence will not succeed in gaining their goals, or they are afraid of getting hurt, or they can’t persuade others to join them in violence. Theirs is the nonviolence of convenience or pragmatic nonviolence.

But over the centuries there have been many who might have gained their goals through violence — who had the means, the courage, and the strength to do violence — yet freely decided not to do violence under any circumstances. They followed the way of principled nonviolence. Though many have been inspired to adopt principled nonviolence for emotional and cultural reasons, they have also been moved by the rich intellectual tradition that offers logical arguments on behalf of nonviolence.

That intellectual tradition runs like an underground stream through U.S. history. Its roots go back to the Anabaptist Christians of Europe in the 16th century, the era when Protestant Christianity began. The Anabaptists rejected violence because they were committed to staying separated from mainstream society and its many conflicts. Some of their descendants came to the United States, where they established what is known as historic peace churches.

The distinctive American contribution came when other Christians, who were deeply involved in the conflicts of society, decided on principle to pursue political and social change using only nonviolent means. The process began in colonial times before the United States declared its independence from Britain, among members of the Society of Friends, known as Quakers. Their strict commitment to nonviolence led some of them to oppose the payment of taxes for war, the enslavement of African Americans, and the persecution and displacement of Native American peoples. But the Quakers were primarily a religious group, whose beliefs led them to nonviolence.

The great turning point came in the 1820s and 1830s when a group of people from different religious backgrounds began to demand the abolition of slavery in the United States. These abolitionists were nearly all Christians, and not all of them were committed to pursuing their goal nonviolently. Those who were, however, created the first group that formed around a goal of political-social change and then chose nonviolence as their means. They believed in God as the supreme ruler of the universe. Therefore, they said, no human should ever exercise authority over another human. On that basis they denounced slavery. But since violence is always a way of exercising authority, they were led logically to renounce violence, too.

The same line of thinking influenced the great essayist Henry David Thoreau to go to jail rather than pay taxes to a government that supported war and slavery. In his famous 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau explained that he would never obey an unjust law, regardless of what punishment he received, because people should follow their own conscience rather than passively follow the government’s demands. Thoreau’s main goal was to maintain his own moral virtue and his freedom to act on the truth as he saw it. But he did point out that if enough people refused to obey unjust laws, they could “clog the machinery” of the state.

Tolstoy and Gandhi

The writings of the abolitionists and Thoreau inspired the great

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips delivers an antislavery speech on Boston Common in April 1851.

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy become an ardent exponent of Christian nonviolence. His writings, in turn, helped to shape the ideas of the greatest of all nonviolent activists, the leader of India’s independence movement, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi. In the 20th century, the ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi came back to the

The United States inspired many Americans, who often did not know that so much of the theory of nonviolence had originated in their own country.                    

For Gandhi, nonviolence was more a matter of intention than actual behaviour. He defined “violence” as the intention to coerce another person to do something the other person does not want to do. Nonviolent actions such as boycotts, blockades, and disobedience to laws may look coercive, but if done in a true spirit of nonviolence, they are merely ways of following the moral truth as one sees it. They leave others free to respond in any way they choose. A follower of Gandhian nonviolence says, in the spirit of Thoreau, “I am doing what I feel I must do. Now you do whatever you feel you must do. You may jail me, beat me, or even kill me. But you cannot take away my freedom to be true to my conscience.” 

Gandhi recognized that he was calling all people to act on their subjective view of truth. No one can know the whole truth, he said, and we must be open to the possibility that we will later see that we were wrong. That is why we must never aim to impose our own views on others. But we must take a firm stand — even unto death — on the truth as we see it now. Only then can we discover for ourselves what the truth is in any given situation.

Since principled nonviolence means non-coercion, people committed to nonviolence believe they are never trying to make a situation turn out the way they want it. They are working not for selfish purposes but for the good of the whole world as they see it. In fact, according to Gandhi, they should never be concerned about the outcome of their actions at all. They should only be sure that they are doing the morally right thing at every moment. Following the moral truth is both the means and the end of nonviolence; a right process is a goal. Therefore, nonviolence should not be judged by its ability to produce results.

The most famous exponent of nonviolence in the United States was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the great spokesman for the civil rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. King agreed with Gandhi that nonviolent actions must always be taken out of concern for the well-being of all people, even those who are unjust and oppressive. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” he proclaimed, “tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Unlike Gandhi, though, King was concerned about the results of his actions. He judged the strategies of the civil rights movement not only by their intrinsic moral virtue but also by their effectiveness in ending discrimination against black people. He wanted to provoke conflict and win political victories.

But as long as one is working nonviolently for justice and equality, King argued, the conflict will yield greater justice and peace for everyone. So in his view, there is no conflict between success for oneself and benefit for society: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest.” Even when our acts involve unyielding confrontation and pressure, he said, as long as we are motivated by selfless love offered equally to both sides in the conflict, we are working to harmonize the opposing sides and improve life for all. On that point, Gandhi certainly would have agreed.

Results From Nonviolence

The civil rights movement demonstrated that nonviolence can produce results if one chooses to judge by that standard. In the 1960s, the nonviolent movement to end the Vietnam War — largely inspired by the successes of civil rights activists — played a significant role in persuading the U.S. government to remove its troops from Vietnam.

Up to the 1960s, most Americans who committed themselves to principled nonviolence were moved by Christian religious beliefs. But the protest movement against the Vietnam War brought in many who were not Christian. The Jewish Peace Fellowship (founded in 1941) grew significantly. An emerging Buddhist peace movement was guided by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn and, later, the Dalai Lama.

There were also many more Americans with no religious affiliation who were drawn to nonviolence. They could find inspiration in the writings of the feminist Barbara Deming. Nonviolence is necessarily coercive, she wrote. But it forces people to stop doing only things that they have no moral right to do. It leaves intact their freedom to do whatever they have a right to do. So nonviolence is the most effective way to make lasting social and political change because it is least likely to antagonize the people being forced to change.

Since the 1960s, the United States has seen a growing interest in principled nonviolence applied to many political issues, though it still counts only a very small minority of the population among its adherents.

Nonviolence movements in the United States have also helped to spawn similar movements around the world. They have achieved major improvements in their conditions of life — most notably, in the overthrow of totalitarian regimes in places from Eastern Europe to the Philippines. Nonviolent activists helped to end long-standing and bitter conflicts in Northern Ireland, Guatemala, and East Timor, among other places. They are now active on numerous fronts in conflict zones around the world. In the long view of history, the United States is at the centre of an ongoing global process of nonviolent social and political change.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S.


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