A call to non-violent activism
Listening to historic activists to achieve sustainable, peaceful change
In these times of trouble and turmoil, frustrations have boiled over, resulting in the loss of life and property, neither of which serves the greater good. Every citizen has the right and, some would argue, the obligation to protest injustice: we know silence favors the oppressor, not the oppressed. However, in determining the means to affect societal change, what’s past is prologue, and violence is counterproductive.
Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently instructed Americans in times similarly polarized as the present that “the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.”
Resorting to violence becomes tangible evidence that we lack the courage and intelligence to resolve a conflict by nonviolent means. Segregationist governor George Wallace knew that every time protestors resorted to violence, he had secured political capital that would retard civil rights progress. John Lewis also knew this and was willing to spill his own blood in defense of his principles at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. More recently, Chadwick Boseman knew this when he advised graduates at Howard University to “take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes… then you will not regret it.” Exercising non-violent activism in the face of the rage engendered by injustice is the harder way.
Plato rejected Athenian democracy on the basis that democracies were anarchic societies without internal unity, that followed citizens’ impulses rather than pursuing the common good. What Plato lacked was faith in the citizen majority’s ability to establish that common good for themselves. Impulse, more often than not, begets violence, but the restraint of peaceful protest in the name of establishing the truth is where the power to enact real change lies.
While exercising restraint requires discipline, non-violent protest is the way to disprove the lie and establish the truth that Dr. King advocated. Be it fighting against voter suppression, marching in the name of Black Lives Matter, educating yourself and others, or some other form of peaceful advocacy, returning college students have the opportunity to peacefully spearhead and affect change that redress policies that have kept the United States a land of unequal opportunity.
Charles Theuer is a member of the Class of 1985.