Riding for Change: Nonviolence

This reading comes from Democracy in Action the study guide to accompany the film Freedom Riders.

The use of nonviolent direct action as a tool to confront racial segregation in the United States began after World War II. Frustrated by the lack of progress in race relations and outraged by the hostility and violence black soldiers faced as they returned from the war, some civil rights leaders felt there was a need to move the struggle for equality from the courtroom to the streets.

Activists A. J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend James Lawson, James Farmer, and others turned to nineteenth-century American writer Henry David Thoreau’s ideas about civil disobedience. They were influenced by world events, as well; many were particularly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for Indian independence. Instead of using weapons or violence, Gandhi pioneered the use of nonviolent tactics, including marches, hunger strikes, and boycotts, to dramatize injustice.

Individually and together, Muste, Rustin, King, Lawson, Farmer, and others began to think about how to apply the tools and philosophy of nonviolence to overcome racial discrimination in the United States. King’s encounter with Thoreau’s ideas, for example, was especially formative:

During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau’s essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support [for] a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times . . . . The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a Freedom Ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.1

Four African American college students sit in protest at a whites-only lunch counter during the second day of peaceful protest at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—the organization that King founded in 1957—echoed these convictions. The group’s mission statement was a call to action:

SCLC believes that the American dilemma in race relations can best and most quickly be resolved through the action of thousands of people, committed to the philosophy of nonviolence . . . . It is not enough to be intellectually dissatisfied with an evil system, the true nonviolent resister presents his physical body as an instrument to defeat the system. Through nonviolent direct action, the evil system is creatively dramatized in order that the conscience of the community may grapple with the rightness or wrongness of the issue at hand. 2

During the winter and spring of 1960, student activists did just that.They staged sit-ins at lunch counters, first in Greensboro, North Carolina, and later in Nashville, Tennessee. In Nashville, Revered James Lawson taught student protesters the theory and tactics of nonviolence.

In preparation for the sit-ins, Lawson staged roleplays during which students were subjected to taunting and mild physical abuse to prepare them for what they would face at the lunch counters downtown. As the sit-in movement grew, student demonstrators adopted another Gandhian approach: they would refuse bail in an effort to fill up the jails. The idea was that after the first round of demonstrators were arrested and sentenced to jail time, they would be replaced by another group of students and then another.

Newly energized activists founded a new, student-led civil rights organization dedicated to nonviolent direct action, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). For many of the students, nonviolence was not simply a tactic. It was a way of life that many of them connected to their religious faith. They believed that their bodies would suffer in order to redeem the country for its sins. In their statement of purpose, SNCC leaders, including James Lawson, eloquently described the spirit of nonviolence.

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society.

Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love. By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.3

Reverend James Lawson, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is escorted by the police following his arrest for the Nashville Sit-In.

Like the SNCC’s leaders, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leaders believed that it would take a dramatic confrontation with injustice to awaken the moral conscience of the nation. By the early 1960s, CORE was one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the country. CORE leaders had long believed that nonviolent strategies had the power to highlight the gulf between America’s promises of equality and the reality of life under Jim Crow.

Inspired by the sit-ins and boycotts of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gordon Carey and Tom Gaither—two field secretaries for CORE—conceived of a new tactic while taking a bus from New York to nonviolence workshops in South Carolina. Their plan was designed to draw attention to the widespread and blatant disregard of a recent Supreme Court ruling banning segregated interstate travel. In the interview excerpt that follows, Carey recalls the evolution of what came to be known as the Freedom Rides.

There were several things that had happened shortly before this time. One was that the Supreme Court had ruled that not only should . . . the [interstate] buses be integrated but also facilities that served interstate buses had to be integrated. . . . Tom and I happened to be riding on this bus . . . when we got caught in a snowstorm . . . stranded on the New Jersey Turnpike for something like twelve hours. And we sat on that bus and we talked. I opened my briefcase and the one book I had to read was Louis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi. Tom and I were reading and talking about it, and a combination of sitting on a bus, the recent Supreme Court decision, and reading about Gandhi’s march to the sea got us talking about an analogous march to the sea here in the South. And we began talking about something that would be a bus trip, and of course we were also inspired by the Journey of Reconciliation [that CORE and the Fellowship of Reconciliation] had sponsored back in ’47 . . . . [S]omehow the drama of the whole thing caught us up and . . . we sat there and planned . . . most of the Freedom Ride . . . before we ever got back to New York City . . . . Tom knew the black colleges in the South very well; he’d laid out a personal route for the trip. . . . [W]e planned to go to New Orleans because that was the ocean and that was analogous to Gandhi’s salt march . . . [to the] sea . . . . [S]o we went back to the CORE office, talked to some people there . . .4

James Farmer began his political activist work with the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1942, Farmer helped to form CORE, the group that pioneered the use of Gandhi’s method of nonviolent resistance in the United States and inspired King to adopt that framework. In 1961, Farmer became CORE’s director; that same year, he recruited and led members who brought the first Freedom Ride into the Deep South. In the following interview, from the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize, Farmer explains the rationale behind the Freedom Rides.

Federal law said that there should be no segregation in interstate travel. The Supreme Court had decided that. But still state laws in the Southern states and local ordinances ordered segregation of the races on those buses. So why didn’t the federal government enforce its laws? We decided it was because of politics...

If we were right in assuming that the federal government did not enforce federal law because of its fear of reprisals from the South, then what we had to do was to make it more dangerous politically for the federal government not to enforce federal law. And how would we do that? We decided the way to do it was to have an interracial group ride through the South. This was not civil disobedience, really, because we would be doing merely what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do. The whites in the group would sit in the back of the bus, the blacks would sit in the front of the bus, and all would refuse to move when ordered. At every rest stop, the whites would go into the waiting room for blacks, and the blacks into the waiting room for whites, and [they all] would seek to use all the facilities, refusing to leave. ...[W]e felt that we could then count upon the racists of the South to create a crisis, so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce federal laws. That was the rationale for the Freedom Ride ....

We recruited a small group, thirteen persons, carefully selected and screened, because we wanted to be sure that our adversaries could not dig up derogatory information on any individual and use that to smear the movement. Then we had a week of arduous training, to prepare this group...for anything. They were white, they were black, they were from college age up to [their] sixties....One professor from Wayne State University, Dr. Walter Bergman, was sixty-one. His wife was approximately the same age....[A]t least two [of the college students] had participated in the sit-in movement: John Lewis from Nashville...and Hank Thomas, who was a senior at Howard University and had participated in the sit-ins in Washington, DC....

[F]ollowing the Gandhian program of advising your adversaries or the people in power just what you were going to do, when you were going to do it, and how you were going to do it, so that everything would be open and above board, I sent letters to the President of the United States, President Kennedy; to the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy; the Director of the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], Mr. Hoover; the Chairman of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which regulated interstate travel; to the President of Greyhound Corporation; and the President of Trailways Corporation. Those were the carriers that we would be using on this bus ride. And I must say we got replies from none of those letters.5

A new bus load of "freedom riders," including four white college professors and three African American students, arrives in Montgomery, AL, May 24, 1961, under guard of police and National Guard.

  1. Citations

    • 1 Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998), chap. 2.
    • 2 Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, Let Nobody Turn Us Around (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 392.
    • 3 James Lawson, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Statement of Purpose, April 17, 1960.
    • 4 “Interview with Gordon Carey”, Eyes on the Prize, Washington University Libraries, Nov. 6, 1985.
    • 5 “Interview with James Farmer", Eyes on the Prize, Washington University Libraries, Nov. 1, 1985.

Connection Questions

  1. How would you describe the philosophy of nonviolence? What do you think advocates of nonviolence believe about human behavior?
  2. What conditions do you think are necessary for a strategy of nonviolent direct action to have an impact?
  3. Why do you think SCLC, SNCC, and CORE members felt that adopting the philosophy of nonviolence was the best way to bring about a change in the “American dilemma in race relations”? What other approaches were available?
  4. What precedents did the Freedom Riders build upon? Do you think the successes of nonviolent campaigns could have happened without the legal victories that other civil rights organizations had won in the courts?
  5. James Farmer describes the political calculations of the Freedom Riders this way:

    • If we were right in assuming that the federal government did not enforce federal law because of its fear of reprisals from the South, then what we had to do was to make it more dangerous politically for the federal government not to enforce federal law.1
    • How did the activists hope to make it “dangerous” for the government not to enforce federal law?
  6. What is the relationship between nonviolent direct action and the law?
  7. Thoreau and Gandhi, writers and activists whose ideas inspired the African American freedom struggle in the United States, believed that there are times for civil disobedience—when behaving justly requires people to break the law. Can a democracy survive when people choose which laws to follow and which laws not to follow? How might a believer in the need for civil disobedience answer that question?
  8. What do you think James Farmer means when he says that the Freedom Rides were “not civil disobedience, really, because we would be doing merely what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do”? Do you agree with him?
  9. For many nonviolent activists, nonviolence was not simply a technique to use in the civil rights struggle; it was a way of life. What is the difference? What do you think they meant by this?
  1. Citations

    • 1 Ibid.

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