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Recent college protests turn away from effective nonviolent methods of yesteryear

Recent college protests turn away from effective nonviolent methods of yesteryear
Recent college protests turn away from effective nonviolent methods of yesteryear

Film maker and national activist Michael Moore made headlines this week urging more protests like those seen at Columbia University and UCLA

“As I think this is just gonna continue across the country, I hope it continues. I applaud every student who’s taking a stand on their campus at graduation, whatever. This is the purpose of a democracy is to be able to address your grievances, to assemble, to have free speech, and to disrupt. Yes disrupt, non-violently disrupt,” Moore stated. 

“And when I’m talking about non-violence I’m not talking about — you do have the right to take over the administration building. I’ll tell you, just speaking from Flint, we would have no UAW, no Auto Workers Union if back in the ’30s the auto workers, including my uncle, had not taken over the factories. They broke windows, they locked all the doors. They kept all the police and the National Guard out for 44 straight days in the middle of winter, until they won the right to be recognized by General Motors and to be paid a living wage. That only happened because they took over the factories.” 

Moore’s mischaracterization of non-violence lies at the heart of an ongoing national debate about how groups — especially within the United States, but also around the world — might best proceed to argue against injustice. Moore’s popular notion of physical struggle and intimidation is popular and even validated by growing numbers of college students who believe that this kind of intimidation is moral and justified. The deliberate error of Moore is a manifestation of a departure of true civil disobedience known from the 1940s to 1960s into the more popularized and cynical version of protest offered by Saul Alinsky. The truer American origin of both successful and relatively idealistic protest is found in the historical advocacy of civil rights leader James Farmer Jr. It is Farmer who in the early 1940s pioneered the notion of non-violent direct action that came to form the successful end of anti-Black racial segregation by 1967. Farmer adapted the activities of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in India. His organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), had 13 rules for practitioners of non-violence. At its heart, practitioners were required to renounce violence as a means.  Between the first protest at Jack Spratt restaurant in 1941 and the ultimate abolition of racial segregation, more than 60,000 Americans joined in causes such as the Freedom Rides of 1961 and Freedom Summer 1964 to deconstruct the intellectual and academic edifice of racial segregation. Men and women like John Lewis and Diane Nash risked their lives and endured violence from others to stop unfair laws passed on anti-Black segregation. The movement was transmitted to younger leaders such as Martin Luther King who made this method famous in the Montgomery bus boycott. For all the civil rights leaders, there was a strong desire to avoid violence and to treat those they opposed with dignity and respect. Though Farmer knew the Freedom Rides in May of 1961 were destined to endure violent attacks, he patiently wrote to President John F. Kennedy in the spring explaining his goal for federal enforcement of a recent Supreme Court decision and with a clear tone of respect for the ideal possibility of the president honoring that action. In 1966, at a speech at Southern Methodist University, Martin Luther King explained the non-violent method and its specific rejection of violence:   

“[I]t is possible to work to secure moral ends through moral means. One of the great debates of history has been on the whole. I guess with the many philosophical differences I have with communism, one of the greatest is found right here. Communism says in the final analysis that any method is proper to bring about the goal of the classless society. This is where nonviolence would break with communism or any other system which argues that the end justifies the means. For we recognize that the end is pre-existent in the means. The means represents the ideal in the end in process. And in the long run of history, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.” 

King’s remarks were important in the spring of 1966 because Stokely Carmichael was on the verge of stealing the mantle of civil rights activism in favor of a more physically aggressive protest approach known as “Black Power.” Carmichael’s speech in the same year suggested the desirability of physically attacking and burning down courthouses in Mississippi. Carmichael’s more militant approach superseded the nonviolent approach of King and Farmer. It is not clear that such a movement is more successful than the one that preceded it in terms of nonviolence. The problems of 1970 are not unlike our present dilemmas. What is missing is an authentic appreciation of the nonviolent methods that worked so effectively for America between 1942 and 1967. Michael Moore’s misstatement of the history is more fuel to the rhetorical fires of violence to achieve change by any means necessary. Getting this history right is important to the critical role our campuses play in civic discourse.    

Ben Voth, PhD, is a professor of rhetoric and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is author of six academic books on rhetoric and argument including “James Farmer Jr.: The Great Debaters” (Lexington, 2017) and “Debate as Global Pedagogy:  Rwanda Rising” (Lexington, 2021) detailing how public arguments positively change public policies.   

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