That genial apostle of nonviolence, Glenn Smiley, was a staff member of FOR for twenty-five years. During World War II he went to prison for refusing to serve in the armed services. He is best remembered for his work with Martin Luther King, Jr., beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott. In his late sixties, he had forty-four small strokes that affected his memory and speech. For fifteen years, he could not make a public address. Then one morning he woke up and was apparently perfectly normal. He immediately embroiled himself in work with FOR and with gangs. Two years before his death in 1993 at the age of 83, he gave 103 major lectures. (Fellowship 56 [October-November 1990], 18-19]
From the beginning of humankind's time on the earth, for about 250,000 years,
conflicts between individuals and groups have been settled on the basis of
force, or domination or submission. In time, the use of force became more or
less institutionalized, and continues to this day in many places.
While in all societies throughout history, there must have been men and women who, by
reason of superior intelligence were able to compensate for lack of strength
by more innovative means, it has not been until the relatively recent past
that an organized third way of addressing conflict has emerged. It is to
this third way that we address ourselves, as we seek to develop a method of
training in nonviolence. In a world of superpowers armed with unthinkable
weapons, the search for alternative means of defense and changing the social
structures has become an absolute necessity.
It is important to know at the outset that nonviolence has absolutely nothing to
do with passive acceptance or acquiescence to evil done to a person or
nation. I, for example, am a pacifist, but it makes me ill to have the word
associated with passivity. The fact is that nonviolence can be considered as
the art of seeking alternatives to violence in conflict, for conflict is
inevitable in life. While history is replete with instances of creative
action without violence, there are not many incidents of organized
nonviolence on record.
The sort of militant nonviolence I am talking about seems to have more or less begun
with Mohandas K. Gandhi, now called the Mahatma (Great Soul), who became the
father of Indian independence. The west was interested in the man at times,
but cared little for his queer ideas, and Winston Churchill spoke of him
scornfully as a "half-naked fakir."
In 1939, however, Krishnalal Shidharani wrote a doctoral dissertation while studying
at Columbia University that began to change the western view. Having been a
follower of the Mahatma in India, he was well qualified to interpret
nonviolence in Indian terms in his book, "War Without Violence." A. Phillip
Randolph, head of the Sleeping Car Porters, A. J. Muste, one of the
secretaries of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dr. John Haynes Holmes of
The Community Church of New York, and a few others began to study the book
to see if it had relevance to the American racial struggle. They decided
that it did, and in time the FOR allowed three of its staff members - Jim
Farmer, George Houser and Bayard Rustin - to begin experimentation in Gandhian techniques.
That is how the Congress of Racial Equality was born, with staff and expenses
provided by the FOR for about eight years. Early experiments attempted to
overcome discrimination in restaurants, theaters and swimming pools in
Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and Los Angeles. It was here that I became
interested in Gandhi, a fact that gave major direction to the rest of my
professional career. In fact, in time I became one of the few trained and
experienced leaders in the growing movement in the US.
Some of the classic illustrations of nonviolence grew out of Los Angeles and
included the Bullock's Tea Room project that lasted three months. It ended
in a dramatic victory for what would now be called a sit-in, as the tea room
was opened up to African-Americans. The success of these early efforts,
growing out of the publication of Shidharani's book, were due to the fact
that Gandhi had lived and worked long enough to have accumulated an enormous
track record of successes. He had left a voluminous literature on the
subject, describing in detail the nonviolent efforts in the areas of
boycotts and village and community work, as well as the home industries that
in time practically emptied the mills of Manchester, England.
Seven years after the assassination of Gandhi in 1948, the Montgomery bus protest
took place in Alabama. That event exemplified the various factors and
conditions that historically have had revolutionary results. Let me remind
you of some of those conditions:
A widespread social evil affecting a large number of people is one requisite.
These people must be economically significant, while at the same time they
must be outside the existing power structure of the society. They must have
an informed and able leadership. All that was lacking in Montgomery was a
method. In Montgomery, the wedding of all of these elements came about,
largely because of a particular serendipity of leadership in the person of
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a remarkably well-trained clergyman who had
recently become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of that city. The
Gandhian method, with its Indian overtones, had been refined in the US in
scores of successful projects in various parts of the country, and this
experience was made available to the movement. The movement was
church-centered and the entire weight of the [black] local churches was
thrown into the battle from the beginning and lasted the 381 days of the
campaign, giving the movement time to mature and to perfect its systems of
defense and offense.
It should be noted that the earlier nonviolence projects in the 40s and 50s had
of necessity been confined to small, more manageable efforts. The Montgomery
protest was the first large-scale endeavor. Everything had to begin at the
beginning, for one of the "knowns" of nonviolence is that because a method
is successful in one place, it does not follow that it is applicable to
another. The people of Montgomery developed their own strategies out of
their own situation. Imaginative and innovative ideas emerged. The first
effort was to persuade the leadership and people of Montgomery of the
validity of nonviolence as an alternative to the methods of the opposition.
Dr. King said publicly on several occasions that the reason the
contribution of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was so crucial was that we
were the only organization that came to help without bringing a ready-made
solution to their problems.
I spent all of 1956 working in Montgomery and other parts of the South, supported by
the Fellowship of Reconciliation. At our first meeting, Dr. King had a fair
idea of what he wanted me to do for him in the form of a four-part
portfolio. He and I agreed on the following: 1) I would teach him everything
I knew about nonviolence, since, by his own admission, he had only been
casually acquainted with Gandhi and his methods; 2) we would work with the
churches and the leadership of Montgomery on the subject of nonviolence, and
in support of the bus protest; 3) we would seek out other leadership in
black communities in the South and build a support system, as well as
service their protests and demonstrations. (I had already been doing this in
the South, but prior to Montgomery there had not been a mass movement
anywhere to relate them all); and 4) that I would try to build bridges and
connections with the white community in Montgomery, as well as serve as an
open and above-board intelligence by which Dr. King could be kept informed
about white thinking and, where possible, keep watch on the White Citizens
Council, and even the KKK.
There are principles upon which classic nonviolence is based, and these are the
most important ones, but not necessarily in order of their importance.
Nonviolence recognizes the essential humanity of every person and in its
struggles aims at the conscience of the evildoer and not at the person.
Gandhi and Jesus both called this attitude love, and both of them used the
word love as a synonym for God. Dr. King said, "My religion requires that I
love all men, even my enemies or him who would do me harm, but it does not
require that I like him, nor his evil deeds."
In nonviolent action, one must be willing to compromise on tactics but not on principle.
While it is not necessary for every participant to be totally committed to
nonviolence, it is necessary for the leadership to be well informed and
dedicated to the method in order to prevent the movement from resorting to
violence in the middle of what might otherwise be a successful endeavor.
The first training program for a group should usually be small, with easily
identified goals that are achievable within a reasonable period of time.
Nonviolence has its long-term goals and its short-term goals. Even though
you have long-term goals with certain definite items on your agenda, you
should not ask for everything at the beginning. A long list of grievances
has a tendency to make the opposition draw the wagons in a circle and hold out.
In seeking alternatives to violence in a case of conflict, there is never just
one alternative to a problem. Nonviolence seeks to clear the mind of the
delusion of rightness. Sometimes there may not be one right way. Gandhi said
something to the effect that you must have convictions and you must act on
those convictions, even though new evidence may cause you to change your
mind the next day. You have to act on the convictions you have today, or you
will never act at all.
Massive movements of nonviolence take time to mature, although small projects can
often be accomplished in a short time with little training. Nonviolence,
like violence, can lose its skirmishes or even its battles, as long as it
wins the war. The Montgomery boycott was fortunate in that it lasted 381
days, and although they lost some of the smaller battles, there was a
constantly growing process that in time made the final victory inevitable.
While nonviolence can bring down a government, as in the case of Czechoslovakia in
1989, I don't believe that in the present world of superpowers, a nation can
be ruled by nonviolence; the very nature of the modern state is to be
violent. But nonviolence can bring people to a state of awareness, or a
will to resist. I can envision a day in which the citizens of a country
would become so aware as to force the state to leave its primitive ways, to
such a degree that even offenders against society would be dealt with in a
healing and redemptive fashion. But I speak here from my faith.
Nonviolence is not a new, untried, pie-in-the-sky, tilting at windmills
idea, held by a bunch of pietistic do-gooders.
Nonviolence is not a quick-fix, nor a panacea for all the ills of the world.
Nonviolence is not a weapon without cost, but has its price that its users
must pay. As in the case of India, where unarmed people resisted the
military, sometimes the price is equivalent to the price that is expected in
instances of violence, because the privileged do not give up their
privileges without a struggle.
The veneer of civilization is often very thin on today's people and while there
is good in every person, human beings are not innately nonviolent. But
nonviolence can be taught and it can be learned, thereby taking the next
great step in human evolution to the place where "each shall dwell under his
own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid."
It is not possible to use nonviolence, in the true sense, to accomplish an evil end.