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Nonviolence

Nonviolence is a set of moral beliefs and practices that rejects the use of force in the fight for social justice and human or political rights. In the African American struggle for social justice during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. is the emblematic figure of nonviolent resistance. King was heavily influenced by the strategy of nonviolence as practiced by political activist Mohandas Gandhi in early 20th century British India.

Gandhi was influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Hindu principles of ahimsa and satyagraha, and the writings of Henry David Thoreau, John Ruskin, and Leo Tolstoy, among others. Thoreau's civil disobedience consisted mainly of writing against injustice, notably in his 1849 essay "Resistance to Civil Government" (posthumously known as "Civil Disobedience"). Thoreau refused to pay the poll tax because the U.S. government sanctioned slavery and was involved in other unjust causes, such as the Mexican-American War.

As for Russian author Tolstoy's influence, Gandhi embraced his strong belief in pacifism, nonviolent resistance, love, and kindness to humanity. Both Tolstoy and Gandhi incorporated Christian ideals as spelled out in Christ's "Sermon on the Mount," which praises humility, poverty, abnegation, and love.

British writer John Ruskin was Gandhi's greatest influence, as the Mahatma (meaning "Great Soul") himself acknowledged. Ruskin's Unto This Last (1860), a book of essays on economy, motivated Gandhi to start nonviolent resistance. Gandhi was influenced by Ruskin's rejection of luxury; as a result, he used his family's wealth to help liberate the oppressed. Ruskin's ideas particularly shaped Gandhi's economic and social philosophy called Sarvodaya, or "well-being of all."

Of paramount importance in the shaping of Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence are ahimsa and satyagraha. A religious ideal in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, the Sanskrit word ahimsa means refraining from killing or harming. Satyagraha, also a Sanskrit word, means "holding firmly onto truth" or soul force; the practice of nonviolent resistance involves civil disobedience and noncooperation, but also respect and love for the opponent. Gandhi effectively used it to gain rights for Indian workers in South Africa and to end British rule in India. Satyagraha entails satya (truth), ahimsa (nonviolence), and tapasya (readiness for self-sacrifice). The practice of satyagraha strives for love for all humanity and demands patience, readiness to be humiliated, acceptance of one's suffering as a means of changing the opponent, and fasting. Far from being passive resistance, nonviolent resistance involves active strategies such as sit-ins, marches, boycotts, peaceful demonstration, workplace occupation, vigils, hunger strikes, and petitions.

The civil rights movement in the United States largely followed the principles of nonviolence generally associated with Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle to end racial discrimination and social injustice against African Americans. As King argued in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," he and his followers knew that people who oppress others, in this case the white supremacists in the South, never relinquish power of their own volition. Southern violence against African Americans had to be forcefully exposed to the rest of the country and the world if changes were to occur. Against police brutality, mass arrests, and lynching, King and his followers offered soul force.

Aware of the formidable power of nonviolence, King himself acknowledged his debt to Gandhi with his commitment to nonviolence as a means of fighting to end racial injustice in the United States. Like Gandhi, King and his followers used a combination of strategies of civil disobedience and noncooperation, including marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. On February 1, 1965, King led a march that was reminiscent of Gandhi's march to the sea to make salt in protest against the British salt monopoly in India. King led the 50 mile march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, to demand voting rights for African Americans and to protest racial violence, segregation, and discrimination.

Even though the civil rights movement largely adopted the principle of nonviolence, some black nationalist groups and individuals believed that it was not effective and opted for a call to arms, or at least did not rule out the use of violence. Malcolm X considered it criminal to rule out the use of violence in self-defense. Black Power groups such as the Black Panther Party declared open war on vigilante organizations, police officers, and sheriffs who used violence against African Americans. These groups that rejected the principle of nonviolence believed in self-defense to protect themselves, their families, and properties because the U.S. government had largely ignored white-on-black violence and crime since Reconstruction. It has been argued that, even though nonviolence eventually led to the success of the civil rights movement, groups advocating violence in self-defense also contributed to the awareness of the social injustice against African Americans.

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Further Reading
King, Martin Luther, Jr. The Measure of a Man. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988; King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action. Paris: UNESCO, 1999; Murthy, Srinivasa, ed. Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy Letters. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications, 1987.
 

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