This post will discuss one the first three vignettes from A Force More Powerful, a documentary about nonviolence as a form of political activism. I will be focusing on the second vignette – “Nashville: ‘We Are Warriors’” – which looks at how the sit-ins at lunch counters were organized in Nashville during the early period of the American Civil Rights Movement as a way of protesting against segregation in a nonviolent way.
Overall, the piece provided a great overview of events, discussing the various challenges involved with nonviolent activism, as well as some of the specifics of how nonviolence ended up being the method used by the movement. I will talk about some aspects of the vignette that most stuck out to me, including the difficulties of nonviolence training, the challenges of capturing the public eye and winning the “sympathy of the majority,” and the nuances of the way we conceptualize nonviolence.
COMPLICATIONS OF TRAINING
In terms of training, I was interested to see the role-playing that took place during preparations for the sit-ins, where white males harassed one of the individuals in training, even making somewhat aggressive physical contact. Yet, immediately after the exercise was over, Jim Lawson led everyone in smiling and laughing it off. The contrast between moments was striking to me, especially given that in a “real” conflict situation, the smiling and laughter would presumably not be around break the tension and pain. In any case, I imagine that as someone training for nonviolent activist techniques, it must be very difficult to play the role of an attacker, having to say and do hateful things, even in a role-playing situation… So, the film pushed me to wonder about how to best prepare for violence and aggression, and whether the fact that it’s only “role-playing” can still prevent the emotional damage resulting from violence.
SYMPATHY OF THE MAJORITY
One idea discussed in the film was the importance of capturing the “sympathy of the majority” in order for the movement to enact meaningful social change. The nonviolent methods used in Nashville, the vignette argues, were effective means of gaining the “sympathy of the majority,” meaning that a relatively large segment of civil society was able to identify with the movement. For example, the 98% boycott participation among blacks was an impressive statistic, and may say a lot about the power of nonviolent movements to be inclusive and far-reaching, as opposed to combat-oriented movements that must rely on specific groups of people from the population.
In order to be able to capture a widespread “sympathy,” the vignette showed how the goals of the movement were necessarily specific and limited. Since it was already a big task to be challenging segregation, the movement did not seem to be trying to question other norms, such as those regarding clothing or the intersection of racial and gender norms. For example, there was a dress code implemented for sit-ins, and we heard a clip of Jim Lawson, during a training, saying that a black and a white person of the opposite sex should not go to the same counter during the protest, because that would create too much violence. While my initial reaction was to feel that the movement was not radical enough, I can understand how creating specific and limited goals can make a movement more effective and gain the sympathies of more people. After all, later in the vignette we saw a man describing how the apparent “innocence” of the “well-dressed college kids” at the sit-ins was what helped to win over more hearts and minds both inside and outside of the community.
It was perhaps this “innocence” and clean presentation that was fundamental to the movement’s success, making it “respectable” in a way that could build sympathy and respect. It was also interesting how being arrested and sent to jail was, just as in the case of Ghandi’s movement, something that was beneficial to the public image and legitimacy of the movement in Nashville. After all, as the film noted, getting press coverage was rather difficult at first; newspapers really did not know how to react to what was happening. The fact that people were being literally arrested and sent to jail, though, was a way to drive home the fact that institutionalized inequality did exist and was being perpetuated by law. By being jailed, members of the movement were able to show how the “correct” functioning of the system (to enforce its own laws) was flawed and fundamentally unjust. And because the individuals sitting at the lunch counter presented themselves in a clean and organized way, their arrests drew more sympathy on a wide scale (not just locally, either).
Of course, it was not clear what percentage of whites were immediately convinced to identify with the goals of the movement, and the mayor’s public resolution to stop segregation did not lead to instantaneous change. The film noted that it took 3 or 4 years after the mayor had agreed to desegregate Nashville that institutionalized segregation had officially been eliminated. I wonder if continued protests, with the goal of speeding the process of desegregation, would have been effective. Still, despite the delay, it seems that the nonviolent methods of the sit-ins were an effective approach to change the way that the city’s institutions worked by winning sympathy rather than violently “taking” rights.
NONVIOLENCE AS ACTIVE – BUT SHOULD IT BE COMBATIVE?
On this note, the film brought up an important question for me regarding the way that we approach nonviolent activism. Several of the speakers in this segment characterized nonviolence as an active struggle that requires discipline and rigorous preparation, which seems to be very observant, based on the way that each of the successful movements in the film required a great deal of planning and training in order to be effective. One speaker, however, describes non-violence as a fight, with “weapons” that are immaterial, and explains that nonviolence is in many ways “more forceful” and more difficult because you must “win over” the other person.
My question is, what are the advantages and disadvantages of characterizing nonviolent struggle as a type of combat? On one hand, it seems problematic to do so, because it is framing activism in a violent way. The way we think about and say things is important to how they take shape in “reality,” so seeing nonviolence as a form of combat has the potential to perpetuate the violent framework usually used to address conflicts. If we see nonviolence as “conquering the other” (rather than, say, trying to build networks of peace and collaboration through compassion and courage), are we simply transforming the violence to a primarily ideological one?
On the other hand, referring to nonviolence in terms of combat helps highlight the fact that nonviolence is far from easy, and requires confrontation and a great deal of courage. It also re-appropriates terms traditionally used in a violent context, potentially redefining the way we think about conflict and moving the “standard” approach to conflict resolution away from violent means.
This question of the way to frame nonviolence is what struck me most during the film. I am currently ambivalent about the use of combative vocabulary as a way to characterize nonviolent activism. I hope to learn more about nonviolent struggles in order to better understand the specific forms that nonviolence takes shape and the best (and most effective) ways to talk about it without also perpetuating the unfortunate “normalcy” of conflict and competition.
-Ansel Courant, MPT Intern