It breaks my heart to hear people say, “Why should we use non-violent tactics when that never did any good in the 60s?”
This misunderstands ‘non-violent’as meaning passive or boring. You don’t have to hold hands and sing songs of unity in order to be non-violent. You can have a rowdy, disruptive, consciousness-raising protest, get your message across, stay organized and on point, and be extremely effective without using tactics of violence against people or property.
The non-violent protests and disruptive actions of the early 60s Civil Rights movement were enormously effective. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were directly related to these organized, disciplined actions.
The Voting Rights Act was a major success at improving the legal and civic status of Black Americans. As John Lewis says: “With the stroke of a pen, millions of Americans were ushered into the democratic process. In 1964 in Holmes County, Mississippi, there were only twelve black registered voters. By 1965, there were 28,500, and by 1984 there were 406,000.”
Besides testimonials and statistics, you can tell how important the VRA was by looking at the great pains the GOP went to in order to gut the VRA in 2013. This was done specifically to disempower Black voters, who are the largest and most reliable Democratic voting bloc.
We’ve seen the devastating results of this reversal in a return to the schemes of the Dixiecrats in the Jim Crow south. They prevented Black people from voting by closing polling locations in Black neighborhoods, by imposing poll taxes, by creating huge barriers with I.D. requirements and other anti-democracy moves. The GOP knew they had to get that civil rights legislation out of the way in order to stay in power–that’s how powerful it was. They returned immediately to the same moves in order to “win” elections. The closure of polling locations and the refusal to allow vote by mail elections even in a pandemic are graphic illustrations of just how far the GOP are willing to go in order to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters. They couldn’t get away with this nearly as well if the VRA was still intact.
So don’t despair that remaining committed to non-violent protest and direct action won’t yield any results. It wasn’t violence against people or property that caused this seismic shift in the power balance in American society. It was the leverage of potential voters–and potential consumers–that forced the changes in state governments.
The 60s encompassed tens of thousands of movements and actions, representing a variety of tactics and strategies, some of them much more successful than others. On the whole, non-violent protest is twice as likely to get results as violent protest (though this is still only about 50% successful by itself. It must be coupled with civic engagement, consumer activism and other long-term methods in order to bring about significant change. Disruptive actions are great for ringing the alarm bell in order to call attention to injustices. But they can’t be sustained indefinitely. Eventually, you’ve got to connect with “the system” and use the leverage your gatherings suggest to force it to change.)
Don’t give up on non-violent protest and civic engagement as paths to profound change. Just because the oppressive tactics of an anti-democracy party have been effective in dismantling progress doesn’t mean that progress was meaningless. Keep the faith. The tactics of non-violent protest are solid. We can continue to use them in order to shift the balance of power, to bend the moral arc toward justice.