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Joseph Kip Kosek: The Power of Nonviolence

Roundup: Talking About History




[Joseph Kip Kosek, author ofActs of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy]

The concept of nonviolence seems to have little power today. Barack Obama’s inauguration, followed quickly by Black History Month, inspired many stirring tributes to the civil rights movement. However, the nonviolent outlook and tactics of that movement have become museum pieces, not unlike the lunch counter from the famous 1960 Greensboro sit-ins that is now preserved at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Everyone admires nonviolence when it remains safely in the past, but it looks a little too exotic, too effete, and perhaps even too religious to be much help in our present moment. Does nonviolence really have anything to offer amid the violent crises exploding around the world today?

Seventy-five years ago, an American pacifist named Richard Gregg confronted an essentially similar question. His 1934 book The Power of Non-Violence was the first substantial attempt by an American to imagine nonviolence as a formidable strategy in the modern world, not simply as a virtuous allegiance to high-minded ideals. Many years after its initial publication, Martin Luther King, Jr. read The Power of Non-Violence and brought its central ideas into the nascent civil rights movement. King frequently cited the book as one of his most important intellectual influences, alongside the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. Gregg forced King, as he forces us, to realize that nonviolence is not merely admirable or historically interesting, but fundamentally necessary.

Richard Bartlett Gregg was born in 1885, the son of a minister. By all accounts he was a modest and unassuming person, “one of the quietest radicals in history,” as an admirer put it. He began his career as a labor lawyer, but soon became disheartened by the dehumanizing logic of big business, the government’s failure to protect workers, and the often violent tactics of both capital and labor in the turbulent opening decades of the twentieth century.

Gregg was working for a railway union in Chicago when he came across a book about an anticolonial leader named Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi’s peculiar approach to social conflict so fascinated Gregg that he made up his mind to go to India, sailing on New Year’s Day 1925. A white man, Gregg immersed himself in Indian culture. He taught school in an Indian village, spent months at Gandhi’s ashram in Sabarmati, and became one of the mahatma’s very first American disciples.

The Power of Non-Violence, published after Gregg returned to the United States, emerged out of his experience with the labor movement, his time in India, and his reflection on the myriad varieties of deadly force in the world around him. Though we think of the Thirties as a decade of economic turmoil, it was also a time of extraordinary bloodshed (the two maladies were, of course, not unrelated). Violent strikes rocked the United States. In the South, and not only there, grotesque lynchings were the most visible signs of a campaign of terror against African Americans. Across the Atlantic, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin enforced their dictatorial power through ruthless purges, massacres, and assassinations. Indeed, the brutality of that decade makes our own tumultuous moment look almost tranquil by comparison.

Amid this turmoil, Gregg sought to move nonviolence beyond “warm adjectives” and “vague mysticism.” Though personally religious, he downplayed spiritual language in his book and instead put nonviolence in the context of modern scientific and political thought. He drew on new findings in the social sciences, especially psychology, and even borrowed from military strategy (nonviolence, Gregg suggested, was “more like war than we had imagined”). He focused, too, on the role of mass media in gaining attention for nonviolent actors, noting that in an age of global communication, “ruthless deeds tend to become known to the world at large.” The Power of Non-Violence understood power to work through symbolism, spectacle, and sympathy, not just brute force. Practitioners of nonviolence, even if outmatched in physical terms, might win the support of public opinion and thereby defeat their opponents without firing a shot.

The Second World War broke out just five years after the appearance of The Power of Non-Violence, apparently proving that, despite Gregg’s hopes, deadly force was sometimes necessary to secure justice and freedom. However, a somewhat contradictory point became equally clear: modern warfare had become far too destructive to serve as a means of resolving conflicts. During World War II, an interracial nonviolent vanguard influenced by Gregg and other pioneers began to create alternatives to deadly force by focusing on the arena of American race relations. The Congress of Racial Equality, formed in 1942, staged sit-ins at restaurants. Shortly after the war, a team led by Bayard Rustin and George Houser embarked on an interracial bus trip across the South to test a Supreme Court decision desegregating interstate transportation. These small-scale efforts prefigured the styles and strategies of the civil rights movement that began a decade later.

The bus boycott that started in Montgomery, Alabama late in 1955 marked the emergence of a mass movement for racial equality. Soon after the boycott began, its leader received a copy of The Power of Non-Violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. was enthralled: “I don’t know when I have read anything,” he wrote to Gregg, “that has given the idea of non-violence a more realistic and depthful interpretation.” In a new 1959 edition of the book, King wrote a foreword explaining “how right Richard Gregg was.” Indeed, Rustin and many of King’s other advisers were themselves advocates of Gregg’s strategic nonviolence.

Gregg’s influence continued after the bus boycott. The man himself was not much of a political organizer, but others seized on his vision. The sit-in movement in particular enacted the militant, media-savvy protest that Gregg had described. The sit-ins led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, the most radical and innovative civil rights group. When the SNCC newsletter published a list of essential reading, Gregg’s book stood at the top. Its author, now an old man, was pleased, writing about the sit-ins that “the developments are going to be exciting, I think.” And they were.

Those spectacular developments, though, hardly clinched the victory of nonviolence. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was claiming thousands of American lives annually. Within the civil rights movement itself, many African Americans, facing intransigent racism, became disillusioned with nonviolent methods. Today scholars of the movement often regard nonviolence with mild condescension, preferring to focus on ostensibly more radical traditions of black self-defense.

Indeed, Gregg’s work clearly shows its age. His psychology is outdated, his faith in mass media is a bit too sanguine, and his realism is sprinkled with rather unrealistic optimism. Yet the central premise of The Power of Non-Violence has only become more significant. Nonviolence, the book argued, is not simply a charming affectation but a crucial modern imperative. In a world filled with both rampant injustice and unconscionable bloodshed, Richard Gregg, the quiet radical, still has something to tell us.

Read entire article at Columbia University Press (blog)

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