Blog Post

Towards a Synthesis of Nonviolence and Armed Self-Defense

December 21, 2010


I’ve sat in numerous courses and read many responses about the usefulness of nonviolence or armed self-defense during the broadly understood civil rights movement. Indeed the archetypes of nonviolence are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The epitome of Black rage and militancy are Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. However, digging deeper into these few who, are not archetypes at all, one finds that this dichotomy of violence versus nonviolence is false and ahistorical. In fact, Dr. King himself had armed guards around his house (i.e. self-defense or the defense of home and property); members of the NAACP were also advocates of armed self-reliance (i.e., Robert F. Williams), and Malcolm X plainly stated on many occasions that he supported nonviolence but only in sincere brotherhood. The Black Panther Party used nonviolent methods to meet the everyday needs of the people with free breakfast programs, which J. Edgar Hoover believed was the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S.


These are a few examples of the people and ideologies where no false dichotomies exist between nonviolence and armed self-defense. To be sure, many southerners during the civil rights movement believed in self-defense of family and property. In fact, many of those Southerners held shotguns in their homes or walked around with pistols; just read about Fannie Lou Hamer’s mother. The guns in the homes and the purse were for two practical reasons: hunting and self-defense.

Perhaps a major reason that this false dichotomy exists is because the definition and practical function of violence or nonviolence are not properly presented. Therefore, it is important dissect the terms nonviolence and violence. Nonviolence is traditionally understood as being a way of life, or a moral philosophy. This moral view of nonviolence is often given a religious overtone. Another way to understand nonviolence is as a tactical political philosophy, for example, nonviolent direct action. In this case, one actually uses their body to effect political or moral change. Violence, on the other hand, is understood as a reactionary, political tool. Indeed, violence may generally be understood in relation to the term revolution. Violence, then, is understood as killing, murder, death, and tyrannical. In addition, violence can and should be understood in a more complex manner. For example, one could argue that violence can be physical, psychological, emotional, rhetorical, or epistemic.  Thus, the use of retaliatory physical violence becomes a matter of one’s moral taste, which in some sense could prove apolitical.  

What both of these terms have in common is the desire to change some form of systematic oppression, both of which can be physical or psychological, but is violent, nevertheless. The major difference between nonviolence and violence is the means or the method in how this change in power comes about. To be sure, power is at the heart of nonviolence and violence as political, moral or ideological change. However, as the historical record indicates, there was no real contradiction between the use of nonviolence or armed self-defense as a political tactic if they work in tandem. Morality became an issue for Black folk under the constant strain of violent white supremacy when someone came along and said nonviolence was a way of life. For those southern Black folk in Mississippi or “Bloody Lowndes,” there was no contradiction between nonviolence and armed self-defense. In one instance, armed self-defense would’ve been useful, in another nonviolent direct action was useful.

Let’s put an end to this false, meaningless debate. Even today, if nonviolence brings the most effective results, let’s use it. If it does not, let’s think of an alternative and not be afraid to defend ourselves against all manner of violence. In fact, even if “violence” broadly understood is necessary, let’s use it with dignity and respect, and as a way to bring us to a greater humanity.


1 comment

Excellent post, Kyle. I think it's worth noting that the CRM's decision to embrace nonviolent protest was as much a tactical one as a moral one. Especially when dealing with an oppressive society which still has a powerful conscience, nonviolent resistance is likely to be much more effective than violent resistance. Adopting nonviolence as a tactic thus does not imply acceptance of pacifism--the moral philosophy that all violence is evil--and can quite easily work in tandem with what you term "armed self-defence". Armed self-defence, meanwhile, doesn't do much of anything to achieve justice; rather, it's a way to protect lives and property against direct assault.

Anyway, why am I still awake?