Philosophies and Strategies of the Non-Violence and Black Power Movements

by James Graham

Black power in many ways signified everything non-violence was not, racial hatred, violence and extreme self-reliance. However the two approaches did have many similarities in their long-term objectives. Both demanded complete equality not jus in theory but in practice. Where they differed most was in the methods used to achieve this goal and the time they were prepared to wait for progress to be made.

The philosophy of non-violence was heavily rooted in religion and common sense. To succeed non-violent protest required not just the support of the majority of the black population but that population's active participation. Black churches were the only black dominated mass organisations in the south capable of rallying this level of support at the time of the civil rights movement. Religious leaders were respected by and held considerable sway over their delegations. A successful protest therefore required the active support of church leaders and more often than not adopted many of their values. When Montgomery activists wanted to organise a bus boycott they turned to their ministers for leadership. Their actions under the leadership of Martin Luther King set the tone for future peaceful civil rights protests. King preached love, self-sacrifice and the restoration of black dignity during the boycott. Blacks had to prove to northern whites that they were worthy of and being denied their constitutional rights as American citizens. This was part of a faith in liberal reform through the democratic process held by King and other proponents of non-violence. King's visit to India hardened his belief in the righteousness of massive non-violent resistance. It also ensured he and his followers choose jail time over paying bail. This use of lives and bodies to right injustice became the prevalent form of protest throughout the early to mid 1960s. Being imprisoned was a badge of respect for blacks throughout the country. The non-violence movement was built on mass participation with religious overtones.

To achieve reform the movement actively sort support from white liberals and the federal government. Often protests were initially spontaneous and focused on local or specific goals. Marches, sit-ins, freedom rides and boycotts started in this manner. These actions were reliant on the local black community wearing down the white community and especially its business sector to the point where they pressured the white authorities for change. The formation of new civil rights organisations notably King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) allowed the movement to fashion national objectives. These consisted of the achievement of federal support for segregation and the enactment of civil rights legislation. The SCLC provoked southern white violence by staging specific campaigns in racially tense cities like Birmingham and Selma. Police brutality was transmitted to the nation through the media particularly television creating great sympathy for the movement in the north. A member of congress viewed the graphic beatings in Selma as an exercise in terror. King and others used this sympathy to push for the civil rights legislation. The reverse was that moderate leaders avoided certain protests to maintain federal support. King even stopped a march in Selma midway to appease President Lyndon Johnson. Targeted mass protests were the mainstay of the non-violent civil rights movement.

Black power meant different things to different people. In terms of aims black power and the non-violent civil rights movement had much in common. Both wanted to uplift their race politically and economically. Unlike non-violence its reach was deeper fundamentally changing black culture. At black power's core were black unity, self-determination and pride in black culture. Distinctive hairstyles, soul music and soul theology were just some of the aspects made popular by the philosophy of black power. Malcolm X created the ideological basis for the black power philosophy with his constant demand for black pride and self-sufficiency.

Proponents of black power can be split into pluralist and nationalist groups. Both focused on the unbalanced power relationship between whites and blacks. Pluralists believed the two races could live beside each other amicably in a multicultural society. Nationalists were convinced a stronger and more oppressive white culture would inevitably dominate black culture. Hence they wished to withdraw from society, some even wishing to return to Africa. Other nationalists advocated setting up a black nation state in the South or autonomous areas in America's major cities. Black power's nature as ambiguous and decentralised allowed for innovation and change.

Black power and non-violent strategy had little in common. Black power proponents often used revolutionary and violent rhetoric to awaken the masses. Retaliation was promoted if necessary to ensure hostile whites found a new level of respect for blacks. Black studies programs and the teaching of African languages were a crucial part of strengthening black identity pride. Community control of black neighbourhoods and organisations was also promoted to increase the black power base. Tenants councils, community centres and black companies were among the various devices used. These strategies gave blacks more control of their own destiny and recognised that the relative power of competing interest groups determined the nature of American society.

American Civil Rights Series

Why Non-Violence waned and Black Power gained Popularity
American Civil Rights Bibliography