Civil resistance in North America: themes from the James Lawson Institute

Martin Luther King once said, “sometimes it’s necessary to dramatize an issue”. Struggles within democracies may actually be harder to organize than struggles against highly unpopular and corrupt authoritarian regimes. It helps to get together.

Matt Mulberry
9 September 2014

Civil rights demonstration in front of a segregated theatre in Tallahassee, Florida. Wikipedia. Public domain.

More than fifty years after organizing the Nashville sit-ins, along with other successful campaigns of nonviolent direct action that advanced the US civil rights movement, the Reverend Dr. James Lawson returned to Nashville last month to help educate North American activists on the dynamics of nonviolent action for the second annual James Lawson Institute, presented in conjunction with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

For eight intensive days, almost fifty North American activists and organizers learned from veterans of successful campaigns in the US and Canada and from leading scholars of civil resistance.  Facilitators included experienced organizers of campaigns such as United We Dream, the nation’s largest youth-led movement for immigrant rights; 99Rise, a nationwide movement fighting to curb undue influence of private wealth and corporate privilege in the US political system; ATL Raise Up, a fast food workers’ organizing campaign for $15 hourly wages and the right to form a union without retaliation; and an emerging framework for the global climate justice movement. 

Also participating were organizers and activists working on behalf of campaigns and movements for fossil fuel divestment, police accountability, land rights, mass de-incarceration, alleviating racially driven poverty and racism, stopping hydraulic fracturing, promoting ethical and sustainable water use, and widening the social and professional inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities – to name just a few of the causes represented. Included in this mix were veterans of Training for Change, a nonviolence training group that uses experimental educational methods to train activists and organizers, and the Children's Defense Fund, an organization working to shape young activists and organizers into successful community leaders by teaching the ways and means but also the history of nonviolent action. 

The touchstone of the institute was the civil rights movement as James Lawson had helped to lead it, examined in part through Dr. Erica Chenoweth’s historical model of successful movements, which argues that the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle is contingent on its ability to inspire and mobilize diverse participation. Civil rights movement leaders like Rev. Lawson and Dr. Mary King explained how they were able to elevate public awareness, ignite solidarity, and eventually broaden participation in the movement, within a society where the majority did not feel they were affected by injustice and segregation. This may suggest that struggles within democracies such as the civil rights movement may actually be harder to organize than struggles against highly unpopular and corrupt authoritarian regimes. Many of the struggles represented at this year’s JLI face the same challenges as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which may be why many participants came from all over the continent to learn from Rev. Lawson and his colleagues.

Having observed the full institute and talked to many of its presenters and participants, I noted that two principal challenges were often under discussion, related to waging nonviolent struggle in North America today. The first challenge is developing creative ways to strengthen a movement’s narrative and message -- such as storytelling, the strategic use of language, persistent engagement with the media, and the use of tactics that communicate clearly to a wider audience. At one point Rev. Lawson said, surprisingly that, “throughout the entirety of the civil rights movement, I never heard anyone speak about our struggle as a struggle for ‘civil rights’. We referred to our movement as a struggle for dignity, humanity, and equality.” He explained that by defining the movement as a struggle to reinstate core values shared by blacks and by the wider society, civil rights organizers enabled the struggle to resonate far beyond the African-American community.

Mary King went into extensive detail about movement communications and media in the civil rights struggle, starting with her experience as press liaison for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was really the driving force behind strategic and tactical planning during the movement. She stressed the importance of a disciplined and structured approach to engaging with the media, based on establishing trust and sincerity -- which in turn allowed them to counter the hate-fueled rhetoric of segregationists while still driving home the movement’s real objectives.

Further solidifying the importance of language and storytelling was Carolina Canizales, one of the founding members of the San Antonio Immigrant Youth Movement, a group that led a 31-day hunger strike to help ensure the successful passing of the DREAM Act in 2010. She now leads deportation defense work for United We Dream. At this year’s institute she explained how the slogan of the movement ‘Undocumented and Unafraid’ helped build solidarity within the undocumented community, which in turn reduced fear, and gave people the confidence needed to come forth and tell their stories.

Carolina explained how “the movement’s first challenge was uplifting our existence, because we’ve always been invisible to a large portion of the country, and we were able to do this by telling our stories over the last ten years.” This was done through large ‘coming out‘ actions, and a Youtube campaign, through which individuals would identify themselves as undocumented and then tell their stories. This form of participation reached its zenith in 2009 which generated the momentum needed for the passing of the DREAM Act in 2010. “No one believed that we’d get it to a vote but we did, just by telling our stories. Our stories are what changed the dynamics within the American public because for the very first time we were being viewed as people who existed in this country. We were invisible before we came out. Like the LGBT community came out of the closet, we came out of the shadows.”

The movement for civil rights had begun with a campaign to desegregate downtown Nashville, for which lunch counter sit-ins were the best tactic. Citing this and other examples, such as Gandhi’s Salt March, Rev Lawson was able to highlight the importance of fighting one battle at a time, and tailoring one’s strategies and tactics to the objectives of that battle. The DREAM Movement’s use of storytelling was in many ways a good example of that. But it was also an important example of how storytelling as a tactic dramatized and thus humanized the issue in a way that struck a chord with the public and did justice to the gravity of their grievances. When challenged by the host of the TV program “Meet the Press” in 1961 about his use of civil disobedience, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained that “sometimes it’s necessary to dramatize an issue.”

Kai Newkirk, one of the founding organizers of 99Rise, and back for his second Lawson Institute explained how his organization seeks to ‘get big money out of politics’ by inspiring popular mobilization in the name of constitutional and legislative reforms on the issue. New initiatives such as 99Rise have built on the popular narrative originated by the Occupy movement but have also sought to broaden its appeal and give it a cutting edge to advance social and political change. Kai explained that in order to create a mass movement, 99Rise is striving to find language that can activate the vast pool of Americans who are disgusted with conventional politics. This means reclaiming the struggle to get big money out of politics from the stale language of campaign finance reform. “It’s not a moral language” Kai mentioned. “We’ve explicitly abandoned that language; it’s very technical, it’s abstract. We feel like what we’re talking about is a question of our freedom, rights, and of who we are as a people, and a question of whether we’re going to be governing ourselves equally or not, and about the fact that we’re not doing that right now. So we’re trying to frame the issue as one of political equality.” 

As the week progressed it became clear that organizational structure was also a second challenge for groups wanting to wage nonviolent struggle in the North American context. The theory that most movements reside somewhere on a spectrum between ‘momentum driven’ and ‘structure driven’ organizational traditions was presented at this year’s JLI by activists and trainers Carlos Saavedra and Paul Engler. They explained that their extensive work in structure-driven activism -- an organizational tradition reliant on one-on-one meetings – had been aimed at cultivating committed activists for deep leadership development. But then they had an epiphany when they met Ivan Marovic, one of the founding members of Otpor, the Serbian resistance group, after Ivan explained to them how he, initially with only a few friends, and ultimately through a campaign of mass civil disobedience, brought down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Carlos and Paul characterized Ivan’s style as ‘momentum driven’, given its more decentralized organizational structure, lack of relational commitments, and emphasis on public action. They had a sinking feeling that maybe they had been doing it all wrong.

The story behind their new structure or model could be viewed as a testament to the ways in which the development potential of civil resistance is enhanced by assembling a variety of theoretical and experiential knowledge on the subject (either through participation in movements or through gatherings such as this institute). But most striking was their ultimate conclusion that effective movements seem to embody both of these elements and thus lie somewhere within the middle of the ‘structure spectrum’.

This seems to make sense in practice. Taking James Lawson’s experiences organizing sit-ins in Nashville as an example, it’s obvious that beginning with a more structure-oriented approach allowed him to cultivate serious participants and potential leaders, conduct extensive trainings, cultivate nonviolent discipline, and strategize effectively. Then, having effectively created the DNA for a successful mass movement, a more momentum-driven approach allowed the actions in Nashville to have a cascading effect across the rest of the South, eventually culminating in the systemic change that the movement was striving for.

Perhaps it helps to begin with structure, define your movement, perfect the human core, and then open it up for mass participation. We also learned that 99Rise has already incorporated into its structure insights gleaned from this relatively new framework of analysis, and thus seeks to experiment with actions aimed at galvanizing larger public participation.  

Also advising this summer’s participants were longtime scholars and activists Tom Hastings and Stephen Zunes. Tom spoke about how he applied the civil rights movement’s lessons successfully to local struggles for Native American tribal rights in Wisconsin, and later to Ploughshares actions against the development of nuclear weapons infrastructure across North America. Stephen’s talk underlined the significance of organizational structure, citing the unique structure pioneered by the Clamshell Alliance, which allowed the group to raise the cost and prevent the building of several nuclear reactors in the northeastern United States starting in the mid-70s -- and how that novel structure became the basis of the “anti-nuke” movement nationally. 


A man holds his hands up demonstrating the rallying cry "Hands Up Don't Shoot" during a protest in front of the Ferguson Missouri Police Headquarters. Charles Easterling/Demotix. All rights reserved.

As the past came forward to inform the future, the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri loomed over this year’s institute, reminding everyone of the shamefully limited progress that had been made in rolling back racial injustice in the US since the civil rights movement, and thus of the need for collective defiance and strategic nonviolent action to address what has now become a question of life and death for many African American communities. One evening a spontaneous working group was convened, to share thoughts on these issues, to listen, and to offer mutual guidance and support. It was clear to all that deep-seated social and economic transformation would have to be part of uprooting racially driven violence and repression.

Yet these dire moments also somehow served to illuminate the interconnected nature of all the struggles represented at the James Lawson Institute and thus the great potential for cross-campaign collaboration or perhaps even the eventual formation of a general mass movement. At what point can a struggle against the criminalization of black youth, a struggle for immigrant rights, a struggle for fair elections, and a struggle for action on climate change merge to become one movement for justice, democracy, equality, and safety for all Americans, blazoned on the public mind with a new urgency?


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