January 2012, Week 3


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Mon, 16 Jan 2012 21:26:59 -0500
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How to Learn Nonviolent Resistance as King
by Mary Elizabeth King

Published on Monday, January 16, 2012 by Waging

Distributed by Common Dreams

How does one learn nonviolent resistance? The same way
that Martin Luther King Jr. did—by study, reading and
interrogating seasoned tutors. King would eventually
become the person most responsible for advancing and
popularizing Gandhi’s ideas in the United States, by
persuading black Americans to adapt the strategies used
against British imperialism in India to their own
struggles. Yet he was not the first to bring this
knowledge from the subcontinent. [ Bob Fitch)] Martin
Luther King, Jr. beside a picture of Gandhi. (Photo:
Bob Fitch)

By the 1930s and 1940s, via ocean voyages and propeller
airplanes, a constant flow of prominent black leaders
were traveling to India. College presidents,
professors, pastors and journalists journeyed to India
to meet Gandhi and study how to forge mass struggle
with nonviolent means. Returning to the United States,
they wrote articles, preached, lectured and passed key
documents from hand to hand for study by other black
leaders. Historian Sudarshan Kapur has shown that the
ideas of Gandhi were moving vigorously from India to
the United States at that time, and the African
American news media reported on the Indian independence
struggle. Leaders in the black community talked about a
“black Gandhi” for the United States. One woman called
it “raising up a prophet,” which Kapur used as the
title of his book.

While a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in
Chester, Pennsylvania, King was intrigued by reading
Thoreau and Gandhi, yet had not actually studied Gandhi
in depth. A friend, J. Pius Barbour, remembered the
young seminarian arguing on behalf of Gandhian methods
with a reckoning based on arithmetic—that any minority
would be outnumbered if it turned to a policy of
violence—rather than on principle.

The more that King read Gandhi, though, the less he
doubted the validity of a philosophy based on “Love,”
which in turn was central to his preparation for the
Christian ministry. “As I delved deeper into the
philosophy of Gandhi,” he later wrote, “my skepticism
concerning the power of Love gradually diminished, and
I came to see for the first time its potency in the
area of social reform.” His serious contemplation of
Gandhi’s fundamental approaches for organizing a
movement began in Montgomery, soon after becoming
pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in April of

When Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her
seat on a public bus to a white man on December 1,
1955, JoAnn Robinson, a leader in the Women’s Political
Council, worked through the night to organize an action
of mass economic noncooperation. King was unanimously
elected to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association,
which would sustain the boycott of city buses.

With the start of the Montgomery boycott, a number of
activists, pacifists, reformers, radical Christians and
socialists arrived in town. Elated by King, they
believed that he could take the fight for justice to a
new order of magnitude unlike anything the United
States had seen since the abolition of slavery. Among
them was 44-year-old Bayard Rustin, 17 years King’s
senior, who went on to help King build the Montgomery
boycott into a mature campaign. The War Resisters
League let Rustin work for King full-time for this

The black community in Montgomery, as elsewhere in the
South, was armed, and there was concern that it could
turn to violence in the struggle. Rustin was worried
that King himself might falter without deeper
foundations. Plying him with books at night, he helped
him to analyze Gandhi, and was the first tutor to teach
King the essentials of nonviolent struggle

The boycott’s success—recognized when the Supreme Court
ruled on November 13, 1956, that local laws obliging
segregation on buses were unconstitutional—raised hopes
for comparable abolition of other discriminatory
practices in the South. That the U.S. civil rights
movement of the 1960s would be based on Gandhian
strategic nonviolent action partly resulted from the
success of the Alabama city’s exquisitely unified black
community. “While the Montgomery boycott was going on,”
King said, “India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our
technique of nonviolent social change.”

In February 1957, at Oberlin College in Ohio, King met
a black Methodist minister named James M. Lawson, Jr.
Lawson had served 13 months in U.S. federal prison for
refusing to cooperate with conscription during the
Korean War. While locked up, the Board of Missions of
the Methodist Church successfully petitioned the court
for Lawson to be handed over to them. They assigned him
to teach at Hislop College in Nagpur, India. Arriving
there four years after Gandhi’s death, he spent the
next three years teaching. He also met numerous
individuals who had worked with Gandhi and learned of
the Indian campaigns firsthand from participants. King
was impressed by Lawson’s background and experience,
especially considering they were both just 28 years
old. He asked Lawson not to wait to finish his studies
to come South: “Come now! You’re badly needed. We don’t
have anyone like you!” As I have documented elsewhere,
Lawson became a human bridge, connecting knowledge from
India to the fledgling U.S. civil rights movement and
contemporary struggles.

After Lawson met King in 1957, he contacted A. J.
Muste, a foremost Christian pacifist then still at the
helm of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Muste offered
Lawson the position of southern field secretary of FOR,
and by January 1958, Lawson was settled in Nashville.
Upon arrival, he discovered that the Reverend Glenn
Smiley, another of King’s tutors and national field
director of FOR, had arranged for Lawson to conduct a
full schedule of workshops—including one arranged for
early that year at the first annual meeting of the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in
Columbia, South Carolina. There, King enthusiastically
introduced Lawson. “Be back promptly at 2:00 p.m.,” he
declared, “for Brother Lawson’s workshop on
nonviolence!” Before the agreed time, King seated
himself in the first pew, waiting attentively for the
three-hour session to start. Lawson once recalled in an
interview with me:

Martin did that at every SCLC meeting as long as he
lived. He would ask me to conduct an afternoon
workshop, usually two or three hours, and he would
arrange for it to be “at-large” so that everyone could
attend, with nothing else to compete. He put it on the
schedule himself. A few minutes early, he would show
up and sit alone, as an example, in the front row.

In Nashville, throughout the autumn of 1959, Lawson led
weekly Monday-evening meetings in which he and
interested students analyzed the theories and
techniques that he had encountered in India. His
workshops scrutinized the Bible, and writings of
Gandhi, King and Thoreau. They practiced test-cases,
including small sit-ins. Lawson’s workshops lasted for
several months before news broke on February 1, 1960,
of the Greensboro sit-ins. Hearing of the Greensboro
actions, seventy-five Nashville students followed suit,
creating the largest, most disciplined and influential
of the 1960 sit-in campaigns. In working with
Lawson—who was always calm and self-effacing—the
Nashville students were not only being trained by one
of King’s own instructors, but they were benefitting
from direct acquaintance with Gandhi’s experiments. The
sit-ins would give the overall movement its regional
reach, and the Nashville students would become a
cornerstone of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee, of which I was a part.

In commemorating Dr. King’s birthday, it is worth
remembering that everyone can learn nonviolent action
as he did. King may not have invented the nonviolent
strategies that he advanced, but he was an apt student,
and his understanding of them would in the decades to
come encourage other movements on the world stage. He
became one of history’s most influential agents for
propagating knowledge of the potential for constructive
social change without resorting to violence. How he
himself learned the theory and practice of civil
resistance is a reminder to each of us that these
methods are neither intuitive nor spontaneous; they’re
a system of logic, skills and techniques that must be
learned. © 2012 Waging Nonviolence Mary Elizabeth King

Mary Elizabeth King is professor of peace and conflict
studies at the UN-affiliated University for Peace and a
Rothermere American Institute Fellow at the University
of Oxford, in Britain. She is the author of A Quiet
Revolution, Freedom Song and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin
Luther King Jr. During the U.S. civil rights movement,
she worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. (no
relation), in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating


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