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.

Non-violence was the dominant form of black protest between the end of world war two and 1965. After the apparent moderate success of the strategy in 1965 it began to lose widespread support to the more militant black power approach. After this date it became increasingly obvious to blacks that continued advancement was dependent on a black show of force.

The end of 1965 saw the non-violent civil rights movement achieve its immediate goals. Civil Rights Acts were passed in 1964 and 1965 to end segregation and the denial of voting rights respectively. Lyndon Johnson even adopted some of King's rhetoric using in one of his speeches the famous slogan "And we shall overcome." The acts had an immediate effect with the number of Mississippi blacks registered to vote increasing from seven percent in 1964 to fifty nine percent by 1968.

The non-violent movement had other important effects on black America. It proved that protest action could succeed, awoke black consciousness and raised hope for a better future. When these expectations were not fulfilled blacks began to challenge the underlying conditions that kept them socially and economically oppressed. Veteran activist Anne Moody in her autobiography expressed this new sense of cynicism best. "We shall overcome… I WONDER. I really WONDER." Rapidly they found their white liberal supporters had disappeared isolating and radicalising black activists. The Vietnam War and prominent blacks including King's opposition to it further sapped federal support and funds for black socio-economic improvement.

It became increasingly obvious to blacks that continued advancement was dependent on a black show of force. Northern blacks expressed years of anger and disillusionment by rioting in more than two hundred cities. Militant young blacks hardened by years of white brutality were the product of a time where revaluating and questioning American society was the norm. Participants in the riots were not exclusively the young radicals however but came instead from a broad cross section of urban black society. The riots were thus urban black's way to vent their anger over racist police forces and continued discrimination in housing, and employment. Black power filled the ideological vacuum created by the failure of non-violent protest to cause real change in America's power structure.

Non-violence and black power had similar long-term goals. The means each took to achieve them varied markedly as did their supporters. After 1965 blacks became increasingly disillusioned with a system that continued to marginalize them and allowed them only limited victories. In this environment black power's philosophy of black pride and self-determination of black affairs could only increase in popularity.


Bloom, Jack M., Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement, Bloomington, 1987, pp.120-225.

Garrow, David J., Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, New York, 1988.

Lewis, David Levering, Martin Luther King Jr., and the promise of non-violent populism' in Franklin and Meier eds, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Illinois, 1982, pp.277-302.

Moody, Anne, Coming of Age in Mississippi, London, 1968, pp.234-348.

Stikoff, Harvard, The Struggle for Black Equality 1954-1980, New York, 1981.

Van Deburg, William L., New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975, Chicago, 1992.

Weisbrot, Robert, Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement, New York, 1990.

American Civil Rights Movement

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
Martin Luther King Shot Dead
Martin Luther King Assassination Riots
Profile of Malcolm X
Profile of Marin Luther King Jr.