Nonviolence Begets Nonviolence

By Barry Clemson 1-08-2009

The dynamics of "violence begets violence" are simple and probably understood by everyone who has ever been in a fight. Unfortunately, the dynamics of "nonviolence begets nonviolence" are not as simple and are not widely understood. Jesus told us to love our enemies and, when struck, to turn the other cheek. Most people and all nations consider these admonitions to apply only to saints or God. Even the institutional church, with its "just war" doctrine and its cheerleading for particular wars, does not take Jesus' words seriously in this respect. If we understood the dynamics of "nonviolence begets nonviolence," we might see what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek.

The USSR sent 300,000 troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to stop a process of democratization. A protracted struggle of nonviolent resistance ensued with the labor unions eventually spearheading the opposition to the invasion. Large numbers of the initial invasion troops had to be replaced within four days because they became so sympathetic to the Czech nonviolent resisters. Such a rapid loss of previously reliable troops is a very high price for an invader.

In 1940 Germany was vastly stronger than Denmark and occupied Denmark with hardly a shot fired. The Danes resisted in subtle ways but mostly gritted their teeth and tolerated the Germans. This largely passive acceptance of Germany ended in 1943 when the Germans tried to arrest the Danish Jews, and the Danes rose up as one and actively, but nonviolently, resisted. More than 95 percent of the Danish Jews were spirited away overnight. In the next six months, almost all of the Jews were smuggled across the bay into neutral Sweden. The Danes reacted heroically, but the German army's role in all this was most curious.

The German Schutzstaffel (SS), originally formed as Hitler's bodyguards, was a fanatical and ruthless elite. They were tireless and effective in pursuing the Jews and persecuting the Danes. On the other hand, the Wehrmacht were the ordinary soldiers, the draftees, and these soldiers were a far different story. A number of high-ranking Wehrmacht officers actively helped the Jews escape, and many more looked the other way. Similarly when the Nazis tried to starve Copenhagen into submission, the Wehrmacht basically ignored the large-scale smuggling of food occurring right under their noses. Since there were only a few of the SS in Denmark and the Wehrmacht had become sympathetic to the Danes, the Nazis were severely constrained in what they could do to punish the Danes. The Danish nonviolence begat nonviolence by subverting the Wehrmacht to the point that it would not use violence against the Danes.

My ten months in Mississippi in 1964-65 with the Mississippi Freedom Summer provided a personal perspective on nonviolence begetting nonviolence. Prior to that summer the Klan, often supported by the sheriffs and other parts of the local governments, terrorized and killed local blacks who refused to accept the rigid system of segregation. Mississippi Freedom Summer brought almost a thousand upper class Northern students into the struggle. Before all of us were even in Mississippi, three of our number (Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman) were killed. Between these deaths and a thousand upper class families lobbying the media and the government, a veritable firestorm of publicity engulfed Mississippi and lasted all summer.

The Klansmen, the hard-core haters, were not converted. They were enraged and attempted more violence. Several things happened. First, the moderate citizens of Mississippi, especially the business owners, were alarmed. All this negative publicity was very bad for business. Others simply took a hard look at the evils of segregation. For the first time in their lives they could not pretend that everything was okay with their communities. The moderate citizens, the ones who were basically decent folks, had to act. And they acted to try to restrain the haters.

Second, the federal government sent a small army of FBI agents to try and find the killers who murdered Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman. The Klan realized that they could no longer kill with total impunity; they would actually have to be careful about it. And since their modus operandi was to kill in large mobs, the Klan members could never be sure that there wasn't a weak link who might squeal.

Finally, the publicity generated by the Mississippi Freedom Summer and King's march from Selma to Montgomery pushed the federal government into passing the 1965 voting rights act. This act, which finally allowed large numbers of blacks to vote, resulted in many blacks being elected to office all across the Old South, thus irrevocably changing the entire system of segregation.

Barry Clemson spent 10 months working with SNCC in Mississippi Freedom Summer, June 1964 to April 1965. He is currently a writer (mostly fiction) whose work explores themes of nonviolence, and has had careers in software development, university teaching and research, community development, and construction.

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