Nonviolent Movements in the Modern World

The Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester, MA, in collaboration with Clark University’s Hiatt Center for Urban Education, will offer a nine-session professional development institute for teachers in grades 5-12, on nonviolent movements in the modern world. We believe our institute, made possible in part by a Crisis, Community and Civic Culture Grant from Mass Humanities, is particularly timely. In America today our political system has become almost paralyzed with polarization. Fear and violence have become all too commonplace with drug-related urban gang violence, school bullying, home grown terrorist threats, anti-Mosque protests, and the breakdown of civility in our politics. The burning of a Koran in Florida provokes lethal riots in Afghanistan where American soldiers have labored in vain for a decade to try to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

In the past century there have been dozens and dozens of successful nonviolent movements in history, and yet these movements tend to be lost in our history curriculum, especially at the pre-college levels where the emphasis tends to be on the progress of nation states through wars and economic and trade competition. In light of these trends and challenges, we believe there is a strong need to teach young people the strategies and the histories of successful nonviolent movements in the past, to let them see the ways nonviolent movements have successfully redressed social and economic injustices, resolved serious social, economic and political tensions, and advanced the cause of human rights.

Rather than try to offer a comprehensive history of nonviolent movements in the modern world, we have chosen to concentrate in some depth on seven examples, some that are well known and some that are more obscure, some that were highly successful and some that had only mixed success. We will include in our series an in-depth examination of the development of nonviolence as a political tactic in addressing problems of social and political injustice. We begin with Gandhi and the Indian movement for independence from British rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Gandhi synthesized ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Christianity, along with the writings of Henry David Thoreau on civil disobedience and Leo Tolstoy on nonviolence, and developed a meticulously planned strategy for protesting unjust laws, boycotting British machine-made cloth (which was undercutting the livelihood of millions of Indians who made a living making cotton cloth by hand), breaking arbitrary British laws and peacefully filling India’s jails, to the point that the British voluntarily ended their imperial rule in India in 1947.

Probably the best known example of the Gandhian methods being applied in the United States is the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. Although the American Civil War ended slavery, African-Americans were relegated to second-class citizenship after 1877 and Jim Crow laws enforced rigid racial segregation in the south while African-Americans who fled the south were generally confined to ghetto housing and low-wage jobs in the cities of the north. Thus, the promise of full citizenship for African-Americans was won, not by the guns of the civil war, but by the nonviolent movement spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with bus and other boycotts, sit-ins, freedom-rides, and voter registration drives of the 1960s. When segregationists reacted with violence and angry denunciations, their acts were publicized worldwide, especially shaming the American south, and the US Congress responded with the civil rights legislation that ended legal segregation and guaranteed equal rights for all Americans.

We will also cover examples of nonviolent movements in the modern world that students likely know little about, such as the successful Danish resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II, the successful ending of apartheid in South Africa, the women peace activists who helped end the decades of violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the massive democracy movement led by Chinese students in 1989. Finally, we will examine the rich history of nonviolence in Central Massachusetts over the past two centuries, featuring abolitionists, feminists, and other activists of the nineteenth century. Among the important figures in Worcester’s past are Adin Ballou, 1803-90, founder of the Hopedale Community and author of “Christian Nonresistance” in 1846. With Elihu Burritt, Ballou co-founded one of the first international peace societies in the world, in 1854, in Worcester. Their contemporaries included Abigail Kelley and Stephen Symonds Foster, and Lucy Stone, all prominent abolitionists, feminists, and nonviolent activists in central New England.

With this series, we hope to give teachers a greater appreciation of the history of nonviolent movements and the power of nonviolence to promote positive change even against great odds. And we hope to inspire them with innovative curricular strategies for communicating these ideas to their students.

Interested teachers should call the Hiatt Center for Urban Education at Clark University at 508-793-7222.

Author: Paul Ropp

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