The Impotence of Nonviolence: Understanding the Utility of Force in the Black Lives Matter Movement
Today, many Americans are invoking the civil rights movement as a model for today’s efforts to create systemic change. We cherish stories of that time as we do comfort food. There is a tendency to have a warped nostalgia about the Long Freedom Struggle, to look at it with rose- colored glasses, complete with motivational speeches and dreams of a better future. We wrongly remember the moment as if Black people were more than happy to be trampled on and hosed down. We want to roll tape of protestors walking arm and arm singing, “We Shall Overcome” and forget how often Black people leading the movement were overcome—attacked—by dogs, bombed out of their churches, assaulted, and even murdered.
Our diluted version of how change happens is ahistorical at best, and more alarmingly, gives a false model for how to accomplish reform. The political gains of the civil rights movement were significant, but they did not begin to address economic inequity, which is at the core of inequality and racism. Moreover, the civil rights movement was not “successful” because it was nonviolent. In fact, one might argue that it was because of the rampant violence that erupted across cities in 1965, such as the Watts Riots, that policy and legislative changes were accelerated. If Americans want to see substantive change, history suggests we go back further and look outside the confines of civil disobedience to find a blueprint. If the goal is to dismantle white supremacy, to overthrow it, more forceful work is needed. Today’s message regarding Black Lives Matter is not about reform, but abolition.
No other time in American history shows what it takes to achieve major change than the fight to abolish the institution of slavery. At the start of the Civil War, more than four million Black people were in bondage. One in three Black people faced separation from their families at the auction block. Edward Baptist taught us in The Half Has Never Been Told that Black people’s life expectancies were inextricably tied—inversely—to the market. When cotton prices were high, life expectancy for Black Americans shortened. Enslaved people were property. Abolitionist Theodore Parker put it plainly: Black people were “things;” they could be “damaged but not wronged.” The only way America overthrew this violent and oppressive system was through the Civil War.
The abolitionist movement was founded on peaceful principles. Many white abolitionists believed that they could morally persuade slaveholders that slavery was wrong. White abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, believed in a “turn the other cheek” ideology. But throughout the antebellum period, free Black Americans saw their churches, businesses, and schools destroyed by white mobs seeking to preserve the status quo: Black subordination. During the time of the abolitionist movement, not only were runaway slaves tracked down in the North and returned to bondage with the Fugitive Slave Law, but the Supreme Court declared that even free Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
In 1855 a Black woman and Oberlin student named Mary Ann Darnes gave a short speech in Cincinnati. She warned, “The time is not far distant when the slave must be free; if not by moral and intellectual means, it must be done by the sword. Remember gentlemen, should duty call, it will be yours to obey, and strike to the last for freedom.” Throughout the nineteenth century, enslaved and free Black Americans raised their fists and their finances to make themselves seen and heard. They employed both the pen and the pistol to accelerate the road to abolition. They used fear and intimidation in their speeches. They stole themselves away or aided and abetted the stealing of others. They defended themselves and each other. They utilized all necessary means and discarded what failed. They fled and fought, and today their descendants, in the form of Black Lives Matter, continue to fight. Black Americans have always had to force their own freedoms.
In the history of the movement to abolish slavery, scholars have given little attention to the shift toward violence among Black abolitionists and the rising influence of this perspective in the abolitionist movement. But Black resistance, and in particular, violent resistance, was central to emancipation. My recently published book, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, actively examines one of the perennial questions in political thought: is violence a valid means of producing social change? Specifically, I address how Black abolitionists in the decades before the Civil War answered this question. Too often, historians have minimized or neglected altogether the role that violence and force played in the coming of the war. At some level, this is because Americans do not like to imagine that the war’s moral compass—abolitionists—could have embraced violence as a necessary and arguably justified means toward their goals. At another level, too, there is a propensity among Americans to privilege the performance of nonviolence and deny the possibility and utility of violence as the great accelerator in American emancipation. Reflecting this disinclination, scholars have largely examined the abolitionist movement in the United States as a nonviolent moral endeavor.
Throughout popular conceptions of U.S. history, there is an unfair expectation that white men can employ violence to “defend democracy,” but Black Americans, people of color, and women should always be nonviolent. Many historians discuss the Underground Railroad solely in terms of heroic acts of escape, but fleeing often required fighting. Not talking about Black abolitionists’ embrace of force can feel dishonest and can make the Civil War seem spontaneous and unfortunate. But human bondage is warfare. The enslaved have been at war ever since they were placed in bondage. I hope the field will explore the agonizing decisions and strategies of those charged with the grueling task of creating political and social reform without an official (or recognized) political voice. A retreat from engaging in a complex understanding of the political purposes of violence limits both how we see and make use of the past.
The question remains: How should oppressed people respond to their oppression? During the antebellum period, Black abolitionists believed violence was required to overthrow slavery. Black abolitionist, physician, dentist, and lawyer James McCune Smith remarked, “Our white brethren cannot understand us unless we speak to them in their own language; they recognize only the philosophy of force.” By their actions and their rhetoric, they accelerated sectional tensions between the North and the South. Black abolitionist leaders embraced force and violence as the only means of shocking Northerners out of their apathy and instigating an antislavery war. To be clear, violence is always forceful, but force is not necessarily violent. Force was implemented through rousing public speeches, the bourgeoning Black press, and the formation of militia groups. And through force, Black abolitionist leaders mobilized their communities, compelled national action, and drew international attention. Bloodshed is violence; but force could be a vote. Both tools were used by African American abolitionists. And some leaders used violence as a political language and a means of provoking political and social change when the ballot was inaccessible. Through tactical violence, I argue that Black abolitionist leaders accomplished what white nonviolent abolitionists could not: they created the conditions that necessitated the Civil War and ultimately, emancipation. In short, Black leaders forced their freedom through violent means if necessary.
The firm, aggressive, and direct stance Black leadership took up against the institution of slavery caused their white counterparts to do the same. Black leaders effectively persuaded and pressured white abolitionists to follow their lead regarding force and the abolition of slavery. One by one, white abolitionists who touted moral suasion and the tenants of William Lloyd Garrison’s nonresistance began to see the efficacy of force and the futility of nonviolence. It is important to note that white women abolitionists were beginning to make ideological shifts as well. Prominent leaders within their organizations recognized the call for militancy that black abolitionists had been pushing. The famed author and abolitionist Lydia Marie Childs explained how the outbreak of violence in Kansas during the Kansas-Nebraska Act convinced her that her stance on nonresistance was ineffective. Childs wrote a letter to then-recovering Senator Charles Sumner after the Preston Brook’a attack, expressing her doubts about the abolition of slavery via peaceful measures. In addition, Childs’s poem “The Kansas Emigrants” was intended to unify antislavery forces and explain the possible need for violence to combat slavery. Her poem was widely circulated in the New York Tribune in the fall of 1856 and served to reveal Childs’s changing ideology. In an 1857 letter to a friend, the abolitionist, political activist, and former Quaker Angelina Grimké Weld professed herself “amazed” by the conversion in her personal beliefs regarding the abolition of slavery. Grimké concluded that “slavery is more abhorrent . . . to Christianity than murder….We are compelled to choose between two evils, and all that we can do is take the least, and baptize liberty in blood, if it must be so.” Although she had been a staunch Garrisonian, Grimké renounced her pacifism for the sake of Kansas and progress.
In 1857, a white Quaker, abolitionist, and close friend of Garrison and Grimké, Abby Kelley, made it clear that she stood not only for the abolition of slavery but also for full civil rights and equality for Black Americans. She even took bold steps to share in their persecution, declaring “I rejoice to be identified with the despised people of color. If they are to be despised, so ought their advocates to be.” Kelley declared that slavery was warfare. She argued, “Since slavery was maintained by force, it might justly be opposed in the same way,” and added, “The question is not whether we shall counsel the slaves to forsake peace, and commence war; the war exists already, and has been waged unremittingly ever since the slave has been in bondage.” Quakers were known for their staunch pacifism and antislavery views, and when one of their group openly discussed “unremitting war,” there could be little doubt about the increased frustration and disgust regarding the institution of slavery. The shift from nonresistance to political violence and radical abolitionism in the 1850s was remarkable primarily for how it manifested in those members of society who would least expected to be won over by the philosophy: white women and Quakers. And it was Black women and men’s belief that self-defense was godly that was responsible for white abolitionists’ changing sentiments.
It cost something to abolish slavery; it was one of the most prosperous institutions in the world. The overthrow of slavery required slave owners to forfeit their property and wealth. It cost lives, land, and liberty. African American history is a bloodied history, particularly during political campaigns. Indeed, the Civil War began during an election year. By the time of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, seven states had seceded from the Union, and the war would ultimately cost more than 620,000 Americans their lives. After the Civil War, the United States had to reconstruct itself physically, economically, politically, and spiritually.
Today, if America were a house, fixing racism would not involve repairing broken windows or fixing leaking roofs. America’s systemic racism is asbestos and black mold. It requires a gut job. Americans should not expect real reform by simply throwing out of a few bad apples in a few police departments. Change is not prison sentences for several crooked cops. Change is a completely new system. The abolitionists were not reformers. They did not seek to reform slavery; they sought to abolish it. And not just for the benefit of Black Americans, but for all.
The protests over the summer have shown us how the police will attack Black and white people. They will tear gas, shoot rubber bullets, and harass peaceful protesters from any demographic. Americans witnessed Buffalo police officers shove a white peaceful 75-year-old-protestor, Martin Gugino, to the ground. As blood poured out of Gugino’s ears, cops stepped over him and even encouraged other cops not to tend to him. Today, we are at an impasse and it will require all hands on deck to overthrow systemic racism. The protests have shown Americans the kind of diversity of demographic that is needed, just as it was during the abolitionist movement.
True change will involve the forfeiture of power. Frederick Douglass contended, “Until it is safe to leave the lamb in the hold of the lion, the laborer in the power of the capitalist, the poor in the hands of the rich, it will not be safe to leave a newly emancipated people completely in the power of their former masters, especially when such masters have ceased to be such not from enlightened moral convictions but irresistible force.” Nonviolence alone is ill-equipped to accomplish this revolutionary work because white Americans have historically been unrelenting in their desire for control, power, and a supreme identity. Systemic change will require more than taking a knee or creating hashtags. Black Lives Matter leaders and supporters want a new normal where the loss or degradation of Black life is not status quo. No one wants war or violence, but we are at an impasse. Together we will decide which path we will take. Regardless, one thing should be very clear, Black America did not start the conflict.
Force and violence were embraced by abolitionists because decades of nonviolent organizing, demonstrations, and moral suasion failed to protect Black people and failed to produce liberation. The willingness to “burn it all down” or take up forceful and violent means is not a result of mere frustration. Political violence was a rational and calculated pivot after decades of failed policies and impotent investigations. Today, no American protester should be interested in nonviolent action that does not produce change. Nor should anyone think that merely burning a building or an overturned car will compel contrition and transformation from those in power.
In 2014 Vicky Osterweil wrote a compelling essay titled, “In Defense of Looting” in response to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Mike Brown. She argued, “If protesters hadn’t looted and burnt down that QuikTrip on the second day of protests, would Ferguson be a point of worldwide attention? It’s impossible to know, but all the non-violent protests against police killings across the country that go unreported seem to indicate the answer is no. It was the looting of a Duane Reade after a vigil that brought widespread attention to the murder of Kimani Gray in New York City. The media’s own warped procedure instructs that riots and looting are more effective at attracting attention to a cause.” We keep hearing cries that the destruction of property at protests is counterproductive. Those in opposition to violent protest have placed the death of unarmed Black people on par with turned over cars and burnt buildings. Perhaps the only reason some Americans have an allegiance to capital is because during slavery Black people were capital, or as Theodore Parker stated, “…things.” In fact, Osterweil contends that “for most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting. The specter of slaves freeing themselves could be seen as American history’s first image of black looters.” Scholars have used the language of runaways “stealing themselves away.” The hypocrisy of American freedom and democracy has always been prefaced on the subjugation of Black people. This has dichotomy must be addressed, challenged, and if we are courageous enough, overthrown.
Those who fought to end slavery sought not to rebuke it or to reform it, but to abolish it. Today the protests are about equality and equity, not retaliation. Too often we forget that violence is a conversant language. It is not just from the powerful to the weak that violence is conferred. The oppressed can respond fluently with violence to powerful entities. And like the abolitionists, antiracist activists are demanding that Americans divest themselves of something they do not need: white supremacy.
Kellie Carter Jackson is the Knafel Assistant Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. She is the author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (2019).
Ellen MicKenzie Lawson, Marlene D. Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women (1984), 284; Julie Roy Jeffery, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (1998), 177–178.
Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence, (2019), 94.
 Ibid., 95.
 Vicky Osterweil, “In Defense of Looting,” The New Inquiry, Aug., 21, 2014.