How Nonviolence Works

by Glenn Smiley

Glenn Smiley riding on a bus with Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956; courtesy

Editor’s Preface: Rev. Glenn E. Smiley (1910-1993) had made a thorough study of Gandhian nonviolence (satyagraha) while serving as a Methodist minister in Los Angeles. He later worked for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was national field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). During World War II he went to prison for conscientious objection, but he is best remembered for his work with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Please also see the note at the end for further information, acknowledgments, and links. JG

From the beginning of humankind’s time on the earth, for about 250,000 years, conflicts between individuals and groups have been settled on the basis of force, domination, or submission. In time, the use of force became more or less institutionalized, and continues to this day in many places.

While in all societies throughout history, there must have been men and women who by reason of superior intelligence were able to compensate for lack of strength by more innovative means, it has not been until the relatively recent past that an organized third way of addressing conflict has emerged. It is to this third way that we address ourselves, as we seek to develop a method of training in nonviolence. In a world of superpowers armed with unthinkable weapons, the search for alternative means of defense and changing the social structures has become an absolute necessity.

It is important to know at the outset that nonviolence has absolutely nothing to do with passive acceptance or acquiescence to evil done to a person or nation. I, for example, am a pacifist, but it makes me ill to have the word associated with passivity. The fact is that nonviolence can be considered as the art of seeking alternatives to violence in conflict, for conflict is inevitable in life. While history is replete with instances of creative action without violence, there are not many incidents of organized nonviolence on record.

The sort of militant nonviolence I am talking about seems to have more or less begun with Mohandas K. Gandhi, now called the Mahatma (Great Soul), who became the father of Indian independence. The west was interested in the man at times, but cared little for his queer ideas, and Winston Churchill spoke of him scornfully as a “half-naked fakir.”

In 1939, however, Krishnalal Shidharani wrote a doctoral dissertation while studying at Columbia University that began to change the western view. Having been a follower of the Mahatma in India, he was well qualified to interpret nonviolence in Indian terms in his book, War Without Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939). A. Phillip Randolph, head of the labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. J. Muste, one of the secretaries of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dr. John Haynes Holmes, of The Community Church of New York, and a few others began to study the book to see if it had relevance to the American racial struggle. They decided that it did, and in time the FOR allowed three of its staff members–Jim Farmer, George Houser and Bayard Rustin–to begin experimentation in Gandhian techniques.

That is how the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was born, with staff and expenses provided by the Fellowship of Reconciliation for about eight years. Early experiments attempted to overcome discrimination in restaurants, theaters and swimming pools in Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and Los Angeles. It was here that I became interested in Gandhi, a fact that gave major direction to the rest of my professional career. In fact, in time I became one of the few trained and experienced leaders in the growing movement in the US.

Some of the classic illustrations of nonviolence grew out of Los Angeles and included the Bullock’s Tea Room project that lasted three months. It ended in a dramatic victory for what would now be called a sit-in, as the tea room was opened up to African-Americans. The success of these early efforts, growing out of the publication of Shidharani’s book, were due to the fact that Gandhi had lived and worked long enough to have accumulated an enormous track record of successes. He had left a voluminous literature on the subject, describing in detail the nonviolent efforts in the areas of boycotts and village and community work, as well as the home industries that in time practically emptied the mills of Manchester, England.

In 1995, seven years after the assassination of Gandhi (in January, 1948), the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in Alabama. That event exemplified the various factors and conditions that historically have had revolutionary results. Let me remind you of some of those conditions:

A widespread social evil affecting a large number of people is one requisite. These people must be economically significant, while at the same time they must be outside the existing power structure of the society. They must have an informed and able leadership. All that was lacking in Montgomery was a method. In Montgomery, the wedding of all of these elements came about, largely because of a particular serendipity of leadership in the person of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a remarkably well-trained clergyman who had recently become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of that city. The Gandhian method, with its Indian overtones, had been refined in the US in scores of successful projects in various parts of the country, and this experience was made available to the movement. The movement was church-centered and the entire weight of the [black] local churches was thrown into the battle from the beginning and lasted the 381 days of the campaign, giving the movement time to mature and to perfect its systems of defense and offense.

It should be noted that the earlier nonviolence projects in the 40s and 50s had of necessity been confined to small, more manageable efforts. The Montgomery protest was the first large-scale endeavor. Everything had to begin at the beginning, for one of the “knowns” of nonviolence is that because a method is successful in one place, it does not follow that it is applicable to another. The people of Montgomery developed their own strategies out of their own situation. Imaginative and innovative ideas emerged. The first effort was to persuade the leadership and people of Montgomery of the validity of nonviolence as an alternative to the methods of the opposition. Dr. King said on several occasions publicly that the reason the contribution of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was so crucial was that we were the only organization that came to help without bringing a ready-made solution to their problems.

I spent all of 1956 working in Montgomery and other parts of the South, supported by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. At our first meeting, Dr. King had a fair idea of what he wanted me to do for him in the form of a four-part portfolio. He and I agreed on the following: (1) I would teach him everything I knew about nonviolence, since, by his own admission, he had only been casually acquainted with Gandhi and his methods; (2) we would work with the churches and the leadership of Montgomery on the subject of nonviolence, and in support of the bus protest; (3) we would seek out other leadership in black communities in the South and build a support system, as well as service their protests and demonstrations. (I had already been doing this in the South, but prior to Montgomery there had not been a mass movement anywhere to relate them all); and (4) that I would try to build bridges and connections with the white community in Montgomery, as well as serve as an open and above-board intelligence by which Dr. King could be kept informed about white thinking and, where possible, keep watch on the White Citizens Council, and even the KKK.

There are principles upon which classic nonviolence is based, and the following are the most important ones, but not necessarily in order of their importance:

Nonviolence recognizes the essential humanity of every person and in its struggles aims at the conscience of the evildoer and not at the person. Gandhi and Jesus both called this attitude love, and both of them used the word love as a synonym for God. Dr. King said, “My religion requires that I love all men, even my enemies or him who would do me harm, but it does not require that I like him, nor his evil deeds.”

In nonviolent action, one must be willing to compromise on tactics but not on principle.

While it is not necessary for every participant to be totally committed to nonviolence, it is necessary for the leadership to be well informed and dedicated to the method in order to prevent the movement from resorting to violence in the middle of what might otherwise be a successful endeavor.

The first training programs for a group should usually be small, with easily identified goals that are achievable within a reasonable period of time.

Nonviolence has its long-term goals and its short-term goals. Even though you have long-term goals with certain definite items on your agenda, you should not ask for everything at the beginning. A long list of grievances has a tendency to make the opposition draw the wagons in a circle and hold out.

In seeking alternatives to violence in a case of conflict, there is never just one alternative to a problem. Nonviolence seeks to clear the mind of the delusion of rightness. Sometimes there may not be one right way. Gandhi said something to the effect that you must have convictions and you must act on those convictions even though new evidence may cause you to change your mind the next day. You have to act on the convictions you have today, or you will never act at all.

Massive movements of nonviolence take time to mature, although small projects can often be accomplished in a short time with little training. Nonviolence, like violence, can lose its skirmishes or even its battles, as long as it wins the war. The Montgomery Boycott was fortunate in that it lasted 381 days, and although they lost some of the smaller battles, there was a constantly growing process that in time made the final victory inevitable.

While nonviolence can bring down a government, as in the case of Czechoslovakia in 1989, I don’t believe that in the present world of superpowers, a nation can be ruled by nonviolence; the very nature of the modern state is to be violent. But nonviolence can bring a people to a state of awareness, or a will to resist. I can envision a day in which the citizens of a country would become so aware as to force the state to leave its primitive ways, to such a degree that even offenders against society would be dealt with in a healing and redemptive fashion. But I speak here from my faith.

Nonviolence is not a new, untried, pie-in-the-sky, tilting at windmills idea, held by a bunch of pietistic do-gooders.

Nonviolence is not a quick fix, nor a panacea for all the ills of the world.

Nonviolence is not a weapon without cost, but has its price that its users must pay. As in the case of India, where unarmed people resisted the military, sometimes the price is equivalent to the price that is expected in instances of violence, because the privileged do not give up their privileges without a struggle.

The veneer of civilization is often very thin on today’s people and while there is good in every person, human beings are not innately nonviolent. But nonviolence can be taught and it can be learned, thereby taking the next great step in human evolution to the place where “each shall dwell under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

It is not possible to use nonviolence, in the true sense, to accomplish an evil end.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Reverend Glenn Smiley (1910 –1993) was born in Loraine, Texas. After graduating from university he served as a Methodist minister for congregations in Arizona and California. In 1956, on a visit to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Smiley and Bayard Rustin helped convince King and his associates that nonviolent direct action was the most effective method to use in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Smiley founded the King Center in Los Angeles in 1990. In the last three years of his life, he delivered over 100 lectures on nonviolence, although most of his writing is now relatively unknown. This article (c. 1991) is courtesy FOR,, and

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi