The Effectiveness of Nonviolent Methods in the Fight for Liberty

By Paul Shippy


Summary: Nonviolent methods are generally effective means of securing political liberty because they bring attention to losses of liberty without compromising the rule of law. Violent civil disobedience is only justified when it is clearly and immediately necessary to defend the lives of innocent people. The limitations to the effectiveness of nonviolent methods include the nature of the conflict and the nature of the participants.

April 9, 2005

Freedom’s Foundations

Section 1

PHI 210

Political liberty is a precious blessing that no rational man would give up voluntarily. When freedom is denied to a group of people, there are three ways the group can respond. They can endure the mistreatment and hope that time will make it go away; they can use nonviolent methods of resistance; or they can use violent force. The question is one of effectiveness. The civil rights movement has proven the effectiveness of nonviolent methods, although there are limits to its effectiveness as evidenced by other movements. Violent rebellion, on the other hand, is rarely justified in a civilized society.

Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” lays out the philosophy of nonviolent resistance that was generally adopted by the civil rights movement in sixties America. While some advocated patience, most blacks had endured mistreatment long enough and were ready to hear King’s message. Thus, King built a large base of supporters to his cause. Engaging in marches, “sit-ins,” and other nonviolent activities, this group struggled to bring the hidden tension surrounding segregation to the surface so that it could be resolved. Their efforts were not in vain. The American people were forced to deal with the issue of segregation and eventually ended public discrimination in society.

The primary reason that nonviolent resistance is generally effective is that they attract attention without compromising morality. King appealed to the moral law as superior to human law and argued that the laws he disobeyed were unjust. He never claimed to be above the law, but a follower of the higher law. This respect for the rule of law is impressive to good citizens of a free society and lends credibility to the cause.

Violent resistance, on the other hand, is rarely justified. While there is a time for violence, such as war, violence should not be used by individual citizens to fight for political liberty unless it is absolutely necessary to protect the lives of innocent people. Governments may use violence, such as the American colonies in the War for Independence, but individuals should not. The only exception would be a situation where the actual life of an innocent person was in immediate jeopardy. But aside from self-defense, violence is wrong because there is no higher law that places political rights above human life. Violent force is destructive and therefore has no place in constructive movements.

The effectiveness of nonviolent methods depends upon many factors. Some of these factors become clearer as one compares a successful movement like the civil rights movement with one that was not as successful. For example, the pro-life movement is one that has used nonviolent means to attempt to achieve political liberty but has not been largely successful. There are similarities between these two movements, and the differences between them are instructive.

Leaders in the pro-life movement like Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, can be compared to Martin Luther King. They share many similarities with King as they defend the rights of the unborn. For example, King argued that black men were created equal and endowed with the same rights as other men. In the same way, pro-life advocates argue that the unborn child is created equal and endowed with the right to life. Another similarity was the common source of supporters. Both King and Terry drew greatly upon the Protestant Christian community in their search for volunteers. Finally, they both used nonviolent means. Both held marches and positioned themselves physically in places that aggravated their opponents.

So what made the difference? Why was King successful and Terry not? There are two differences that separate the movements and show what factors must accompany nonviolent means if they are to be effective. First is the nature of the conflicts, which differs in both the people being oppressed and the timing. The oppressed people in the civil rights movement were blacks mainly in the South. They were both visible and personally involved in their defense. The oppressed people in the pro-life movement were unborn children. They were not really visible and cannot be personally involved in their defense. This made it more difficult for the movement to gain support. Also, the movements differed in timing. The blacks had been enslaved for hundreds of years and segregated for nearly a century before the civil rights movement. But it had hardly been more than a decade since Roe vs. Wade when the pro-life movement picked up steam. It seems that nonviolent means are more effective when the people being oppressed are visible, personally involved, and have been oppressed for a long time.

The second important difference between the movements is the number and unity of the participants. While King gained a large following, Terry did not. While the blacks were a minority, they were nearly universal in their support of the civil rights movement. Many chose to adopt King’s methods and resist. On the other hand, pro-lifers were not universally supportive of Terry’s methods. Many associated him with clinic bombers and refused to get involved. Many in the church were too complacent to take the risk of resistance. So the movement was widely split. While the pro-life population may have been larger in proportion to the black population, the percentage of resisters was much less. Obviously, nonviolent means are more effective when more people are united in the movement.

As was stated, nonviolent means can often be effective in gaining political liberty. It is superior to violence because it respects the higher law of morality. But it can be ineffective for various reasons. Factors like the people involved, unity, and timing are just a few that can limit the effectiveness of such movements. While defending the rights of the oppressed may not always be effective, it is always right. Therefore, a free people should be wise in securing freedom in a society and carefully consider nonviolent methods as a way to accomplish that end.