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The genius of John Lewis’ unyielding nonviolent discipline

I was privileged to work alongside the esteemed civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis from 1963-66 while on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. My responsibility was in communications, which plays a critical role in nonviolent struggle, because putting across the claims, demands, calls and requests of the campaign is essential. If observers cannot clearly grasp why and what social change is being sought, they are unlikely to respond or be recruited. I would often need to issue news releases quoting John, our chairman, that I had written. John’s consistency of purpose and uncompromising insistence on treating the opponent with respect made it possible for me to conjure what he would like to say.

The technique called nonviolent action has been frequently found throughout human history as an alternative for violence or passivity. Yet I find it fascinating that what may be John’s greatest capacity and attribute has not always been understood. He deeply grasped that how one fights determines the end result achieved. This has long been called the connection between the means and ends. It is based on grasping that the way one acts and speaks can modify the outcome, which is tightly associated with maintaining nonviolent discipline. John, more than anyone in our ranks, made real and tangible that the ability to control any verbal or physical retaliation could make or break effectiveness.

I could often see John reaching inside himself to find a place that sought neither retribution nor retaliation — seeking solely justice and the dismantling of inequities. Without comprehending the necessity for tenacious self-restraint, it’s hard to appreciate how the social power of nonviolent action actually works.

U.S. Representative John Lewis poses for a photo at Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington DC.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Many have missed that what made John exceptional and helped him to maintain a guiding role in the U.S. Congress — up until he drew his last breath — was his understanding of nonviolent discipline. What does this mean? Large numbers of individuals utilizing rigorous willpower is part of the way that the technique of nonviolent struggle operates. This form of power is entirely different from that utilized in armed conflict. To explain, let me turn to social philosopher Hannah Arendt, who has been influential with theoreticians of nonviolent action. Arendt’s 1969 essay “On Violence” distinguishes between violence and power. Violence, far from being the most “powerful” force in power relations, she says, needs to use instruments, so it’s not real power. Arendt writes, “Power and violence are opposites … to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant.” For her, power is what happens when people willingly come together to take action on common purposes.

Impact of the 1960 southern student sit-in campaigns

The 1960 southern student sit-in campaigns spread to cities throughout the region. The point of a sit-in is not that a group of people sat down somewhere. The feature of this nonviolent method (one of hundreds, with unlimited potential) is that when asked to leave, the participants refuse to move. This is where maintaining an iron grip on discipline is crucial.

Sekou M. Franklin, president of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, has been studying with colleagues how the engagement of some 60,000 to 70,000 participants in the southern student sit-in campaigns affected the Southland over the decades. Their research is showing that students sitting down at lunch counters and refusing to leave when asked has had greater ongoing significance than previously understood. Franklin and other social scientists are additionally finding that the sit-in campaigns — which were crucial to desegregating lunch counters as public accommodations — were also catalytic for spurring small-town organizing by local people. “Dozens of local movements are now being catalogued that have not heretofore been assessed,” Franklin said. “They were much more widespread than previously understood.”

SNCC was a galvanizing force with field secretaries living and working with local communities and all the while sharing the basics and versatilities of organizing and nonviolent action. It can now be seen that as a result, communities and their neighborhoods, homegrown institutions, churches, women’s and youth groups became engaged to work for social change with nonviolent direct action. According to Franklin, “The southern student movement was one of the critical mobilizing inflection points spurring local movements South-wide.” Such home-grown sit-in campaigns often spread into downtown shopping districts “in dozens of cities.” From the Arkansas Delta to Southwest Georgia to Tallahassee, Florida, to Southside Virginia, to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and points in between, these drives often became the stimuli for demolishing racial discrimination in both public accommodations and among private department stores in city centers, while also congealing local movements that produced tangible results.​

When John was elected to chair SNCC at age 23, he was the youngest of the six speakers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To me, John’s remarks were the climax of the entire spectacle. Among SNCC workers, we had already adopted the slogan from the African independence struggles in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia: “One man, one vote.” John proceeded to tell a quarter of a million marchers that this was the African cry and “It should be ours too.” He expressed with utter clarity a democratic ideal in which every citizen, including those at the bottommost rung of the U.S. social order, must be able to partake in determining its destiny.

Sponsored by an amalgam of all civil rights groups working in Mississippi in 1964, Mississippi Freedom Summer saw the horrifying murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Thirty years later, I would return with John to the Mount Zion Methodist Church that had been set ablaze by Klansmen to lure the three vote canvassers to what would be their deaths. The wanton killings of an interracial team, all in their early twenties, would eventually be revealed to have had heavy state involvement. The enormity of the tragedy had the effect of forcing the nation to begin to face the malevolence of its tolerance for domestic terrorism in the form of the Klan’s racial depravity. Two commemorations in Philadelphia, Mississippi — on the 1989 and 2004 anniversaries of the killings — forced the community to face its past and undertake the Mississippi Truth Commission.

John’s sincerity and earnestness helped to get the Civil Rights Act passed that same year. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act followed, in some ways making the passage of the 15th Amendment of 1869 a reality for African Americans. John’s perspective often echoed the viewpoint of senior SNCC advisor Ella Jo Baker, whose views were both penetrating and influential. A significant exemplar for justice in U.S. social history, Baker is noted for saying, “Oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see the world for what it is, and move to transform it.” The centrality of this tenet radiated through all of SNCC’s work. It was later articulated in a poster when John directed the Voter Education Project, where the authenticity of his conviction was expressed as “The hands that once picked cotton can now pick presidents.”

Crucial to the success of the nonviolent method of fighting for justice, which goes back to ancient times and has been found wherever historians have looked for it, is an understanding of the basic prerequisite for maintaining a restrained stance of nonretaliation. You can praise John’s bravery when, on March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” he led some 600 citizens onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of Selma, Alabama. Walking solemnly and steadily among armed mounted police, troopers and posses of deputized civilians with batons, he ended up suffering a skull fracture, as news cameras recorded police in gas masks assaulting unarmed children, women and men, many dressed for church. Incontestably, John exuded courage. Yet I do not think that this was his concentration. He was holding tight to his firm mastery of unyielding nonviolent discipline. Since the 1930s it has been understood that when police or security officers face unarmed people who respectfully and nonviolently express their grievances, it can have an unbalancing effect on police and security authorities, sometimes causing defections. Scholars today call this political jiu-jitsu.

The Nashville Workshops

The Rev. James Lawson began weekly workshops at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, and other houses of worship in Nashville, in autumn 1959, which eventually included students from all of the city’s institutions of higher learning. The Nashville campaign that developed is worthy of study: It was interlinked with the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, local leadership and the broader Black community. There, John deeply internalized the basic theories and methods of nonviolent action, including the necessity for focus on maintaining discipline. With nonviolent direct action, it is crucial to retain mastery over any impulse to retaliation, and to remain non-belligerent in practicing noncooperation, in order to allow larger and more inscrutable dynamics to occur when the unarmed stand up to those who are heavily supplied with weaponry. By nonviolent direct action, I am speaking of an historic phenomenon in which action is taken directly to the source of a grievance or injustice, rather than working through representatives, agencies or standard political institutions. In the words of scholar April F. Carter, “nonviolent direct action is adopted by social groups or whole communities suffering injustice or oppression as a form of protest that demands change by addressing the issues directly, rather than formally appealing to those in power to effect change.”

Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which he delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, calling for an end to racism.
This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Lawson met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Oberlin College in February 1957, upon returning from teaching for three years in Maharashtra state in India. Lawson would become the critical interpreter of Gandhian insights for the U.S. mid-20th century Black community, selectively introducing knowledge from India’s struggles against European colonialism. The historical crossroads for both the practice and theory of nonviolent civil resistance was Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose experiments with satyagraha (or a relentless pursuit of Truth) in South Africa and India placed nonviolent methods on the world political map. In retrospect it can be seen that — as a result of his ability to meet with countless individuals who had worked alongside Gandhi — Lawson, in a figurative sense, would become the go-between for the world’s two most consequential and influential nonviolent movements: the Indian independence campaigns and the southern freedom movement of the United States. Lawson interwove Gandhian comprehensions with the religious culture and biblical ethos of Southern Black communities. He also became the main strategic advisor for the wing of nonviolent direct action of the civil rights era.

For the rest of his life, John would reach deep into himself to enact the philosophies and insights he had absorbed and adopted in the Nashville workshops. This is how he became the exemplar within our ranks for what it means to possess nonviolent discipline — a crucial requirement for effectiveness in using “people power,” the term that emerged from the national nonviolent struggle in the Philippines that ended the Ferdinand Marcos regime in 1986. It is important to recognize that the ongoing preparation, advice and counsel from advisors — like Ella Baker and Lawson, as well as historians Staughton Lynd and Howard Zinn — set a high standard for proving the validity of nonviolent direct action as a potent process for disassembling injustices in the 1960s southern freedom struggle.I regularly quote Bayard Rustin today, who was among our mentors. 

Indeed, the modeling being done by the wing of direct action groups in the mass mobilization — such as SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — can now be seen across the world. Television coverage became commonplace in 1963, just in time for the international community to see children being arrested and transported to jails in school buses, during the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

Within the United States, news coverage invigorated other constituencies. In 1978, Native Americans conducted the “Longest Walk” from San Francisco to Washington, a distance of 3,600 miles, arising from their benefiting from the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, many actions of dramatic nonviolent resistance were being carried out in the 1970s and 1980s by U.S. adults and children with physical disabilities who had been prevented from having equal access. As Andrea Faville of Syracuse University, phrased it, “Inspired by the success of the African American civil rights movement, people with disabilities began to campaign.” Indeed, by 1990, they had secured the far-reaching and impactful Americans with Disabilities Act.

Black Lives Matter and maintaining critical nonviolent discipline

As massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations took place in thousands of U.S. cities, across all 50 states, in response to the killing of George Floyd on May 25, you could see various forms of disarray resulting from the protesters’ political jiu-jitsu. For more than a month, newscasts showed instances of police officers breaking rank, disobeying orders, defecting from their fellow officers, others standing back silently and motionless, while in certain locations the police physically joined the demonstrators.

By June, Black Lives Matter chapters wisely appeared in step with maintaining the critical nonviolent discipline John modeled for 61 years — ever since enlisting in Lawson’s Nashville workshops. His life’s work was a national tutorial on the power possessed by the maintenance of strict nonviolent discipline, and Black Lives Matter supporters exemplified this essential self-restraint.

Man walks in front of a Black Lives Matter flag.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Additionally, Black Lives Matter is seeking social change through nonviolent action with the involvement of multiple generations. Without intergenerational involvement, we forfeit cross-generational human expansiveness. This is part of what can continue to effect attitudinal and tangible change in the United States with the urgency of holding up a mirror for self-evaluation, bringing about racial healing and stoking pride in human diversity.

John exemplified something else that I have been appreciating with the passage of time: The study and practice of nonviolent action is for life. It does not belong to the young. It is not something one outgrows. Seeking tangible justice without stooping to violence or passivity can empower one for life. Numbers count with nonviolent methods. Combining headcounts with exacting self-restraint is partly how nonviolent struggle works, which is entirely different from the power wielded in armed, militarized power that seeks to incite fear, vanquish and kill. In the past 60 years a volcanic explosion of research, study, and documentation of the accomplishments of this technique of struggle has become available, and translations are widely available in dozens of languages.

Yale historian Geoffrey Parker once stated that “the major export of Western civilization is violence.” John Lewis did not need to attend Yale for this insight. He became the recognized catalytic agent for spreading knowledge of a technique of struggle that is invigorating nonviolent civil resistance worldwide. In the past half century, more than 50 nations have made democratic transitions from tyrannies or dictatorships through carefully planned nonviolent action. John’s mastery of nonviolent discipline will remain the way.

This article was originally published on Waging Nonviolence and is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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