Each new movement faces the same set of challenges, including the effectiveness of nonviolent actions in the face of lasting power and systematic repression. Martin Luter King’s emphasis on the peaceful nature of the resistance, during which unarmed people used a coordinated series of strikes, protests, boycotts, and other actions to confront opponents, is sometimes criticized. It may be caused by doubt that unarmed and oppressed people can organize and challenge a powerful adversary (Chenoweth 91). Nonviolent resistance campaigns are more successful than their violent counterparts in the struggle to remove a national leader or gain territorial independence. Unarmed resistance is the most powerful weapon available to the oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.
This conclusion may seem naive, but in fact, peaceful resistance campaigns are successful because they have a great potential to attract the general public to participate in the movement. The massive participation of the representatives of various social classes in most cases encourages reformers while depriving hardliners of access to sources of support (Chenoweth 93). Nonviolent participation increases the chances to deprive maintenance mode, enabling the security services, the economic elite, and the bureaucracy to abandon loyal leaders without fear of bloody retaliation.
Some studies have questioned the ability of the nonviolent opposition to fight repressive regimes, especially if the latter’s ambitions include genocide or politicide. However, the examples of Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams have shown how the tactics of legitimate self-defense lead to negative consequences for the defender (Teixeira et al. 920). Black people across America appreciated Williams’ efforts to protect the black community from white racist attacks. On the other hand, his activities raised many questions, for example, what kind of weapon should be used in self-defense, whether it is necessary to train people to use weapons, what should be the political basis of the idea of self-defense, and others.
So, as King said, without decisive, legitimate, and nonviolent pressure, they would not have had a single civil rights conquest. Dr. King was more acceptable to the white American mainstream than, for example, Malcolm X, who was a follower of a faith that was widely viewed with suspicion and fear (Teixeira et al. 925). For most white people, he was considered a dangerous radical while King was a Christian minister who advocated nonviolence in his movement. Of course, he was interested in the moral side of nonviolent resistance, but his pragmatism should not be underestimated. In general, his peaceful campaign was much more successful than violent.
Mass nonviolent movements do not benefit from fighting wings that are capable of achieving some short-term goals. They attract media attention, create a sense of self-defense, or spread opposition culture to increase the engagement of more radical members of the movement. However, they negatively affect long-term strategic plans, such as maintaining and building up a diverse base of participants, increasing support among third parties, and encouraging security agencies to withdraw support from the authorities (Teixeira et al. 923). Moreover, in comparison to armed actions, nonviolent resistance is extremely difficult to predict.
The effectiveness of unarmed actions lies not only in its ability to transform society but in its creativity and potential for co-optation and coercion. Of course, not all nonviolent campaigns are always successful and effective. However, in cases where they failed, there was no reliable systemic evidence to indicate that violent uprisings would have been more successful. Therefore, Martin Luter King’s nonviolent approach to social change was not naïve or idealistic, but an effective means of the Civil Rights movement.
Chenoweth, Erica. “Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response: Is Violence Towards Civilian-Based Movements on the Rise?” Global Responsibility to Protect, vol. 9, no. 1, 2017, pp. 86-100.
Teixeira, Cátia P., Russell Spears, and Vincent Y. Yzerbyt. “Is Martin Luther King or Malcolm X the More Acceptable Face of Protest? High-status Groups’ Reactions to Low-status Groups’ Collective Action.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 118, no. 5, 2020, pp. 919-945.