Thoughts on Nonviolent Direct Action

Bernard LaFayette, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Director in Selma, Alabama leading up to the infamous Bloody Sunday and eventually the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was a person with a simply designed two-winged program of voter registration and nonviolence. Yet, while the idea of the program was simple, this is not to be interpreted as the objectives of either wing being simple, but rather, to imply that both components were necessary and that the objectives and strategies were focused to ensure their goals were achieved.  If the strategies would have been both nonviolent and violent at any given time during the protracted struggle in Selma; then it would have convoluted the message about which party was guilty of wrong-doing. It would also potentially not have garnered the sympathy and support of the majority, which they believed was necessary to influence the federal government to stand in opposition of state authority and abuses. The activists could have also focused on the police brutality and the state sanctioned violence that resulted from their struggles for equal citizenship, and they had claim to it because state troopers had killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, but it would have distracted attention from their primary objective, which was justice for all and equal citizenship. Bernard LaFayette and SNCC, with the assistance of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., maintained a simple program acutely focused because they believed it was the best strategy to achieve their objectives.

Writing about both the violence that is used against people and the nonviolent response to it and why it is important, LaFayette states: “One of the reasons people attack you is that they have already reduced your humanity and view you as an object. Looking directly at an attacker, eye to eye, reinforces the idea that you are a human being and that he or she, too, is a human being with choices” (LaFayette, “In Peace and Freedom” 75). It is no simple task to stand still and non-combative or defensive while another is causing serious bodily harm and potentially death to you, it requires both philosophy and practice. The philosophy is what grounds the motivation to respond to violence in such a manner and here LaFayette is identifying two very important characteristics of why nonviolence is important. First, all people are human and part of one moral community who deserve to be treated as part of that community and as a human; this is true for both the attacked and the attacker. Second, is that we all as humans and members of the moral community have choices we can and must make, choices that we are morally responsible for. Nonviolent direct action in response to violence and unjust behaviors explicitly denies the perceived reduction of a human to an object, what Dr. King called, “to thingify” a person, and it maintains that the reduction is a fallacy. Thus, nonviolence asserts the humanity of the person who practices it and for a people who had almost continuously been denied their humanity, this was a powerful and direct challenge to a culture and a society that sought to maintain that reduction to an object. The philosophy founded the practice, and the practice reinforced the belief in the people who learned the philosophy strengthening the community as the philosophy was spread.

It was the displaying of the lack of acceptance by the white population of full participation within this moral community of the black population, in direct contradiction of the moral principles entailed within the US Constitution, which most Americans in the early 1960s believed in, that swayed the federal government to step in to guarantee full participation and citizenship to those denied. This was the objective of the entire project in Selma and violence on the part of those denied full participation in the moral community, would have clouded the message that they were moral members of the community who deserved equal protection. If the teachers who marched to the registrar’s office when barred access to the building and Sheriff Jim Clark forcefully ejected the teachers, had instead forced their way into the building, the fact that they were being denied their right to vote would have been lost under the reports of their ‘uncivilized’ behavior. However, they made three peaceful attempts to enter the registrar’s office and were willing to receive the unjust abuse from the sheriff and his officers to reveal the state sanctioned denial to full participation within in the moral community. This demonstration by members of the community and SNCC, asserted their humanity, respected the humanity of those who treated them unjustly, and garnered the moral support of both the national and international moral community. It was the swaying of the majority of the moral community that provided the eventual victory they were after in Selma, and that was the strategy from the beginning. They could very well have focused their attention on police brutality, instead of the right to vote and full participation in the moral community, but ending police brutality and not gaining the right to full participation would not have achieved their goals. Furthermore, the police brutality the people were suffering was addressed by exposing it during their continued pressure to achieve their primary objective, so they did not need to make it their primary focus.

When seeking to change an unjust system, it is vitally important to select an issue that will achieve multiple objectives simultaneously and that will reap the broadest breadth of change possible. The only two resources that activists have are time and space and both are too valuable to waste. It is also essential to select a strategy that compliments the objectives the people want to achieve. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek” (King, “Why We Can’t Wait” 110).

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