Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, October 18, 2000
King's nonviolence philosophy allows peaceful overthrows to endure, Carson says


Palestinians would have been more successful in their quest for self-determination had they used nonviolence as the main strategy of their struggle, asserts history Professor Clayborne Carson.

That's because over the last half-century, Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolence has become the "predominant way in which people overthrow tyrannical governments and make their lives better," he says.

Carson discussed the impact of King's and Mohandas K. Gandhi's methods of effecting change through peaceful means during a lunchtime talk last Friday titled "King and the Ethics of Nonviolence." Carson heads the Martin Luther King Jr. Paper's Project at Stanford. Ethics@Noon is a weekly forum.

Although nonviolence has not succeeded everywhere, notably in China, Carson points out, the same could be said about violent methods used to bring about change. "Any movement that uses violence to take power has to use it to keep power," he says.

Carson also insists that it is only since the Palestinian struggle moved from a violent confrontation mostly involving men to a broad-based struggle involving the entire population that it has been able to advance to where it is today. "The legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people are on the world's agenda," Carson says. "Despite what's on the news, [that's] a better spot than where [they] were 10 to 15 years ago."

Carson says that the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe are prime examples of how nonviolent methods have been used to bring about change.

In South Africa, from the 1940s to the early 1960s, the anti-apartheid activists organized boycotts and other acts of civil disobedience. It was only following the Sharpesville massacre in 1961, when South African authorities killed nonviolent protesters, that anti-apartheid leaders turned to a variety of tactics that included both violent and nonviolent methods.

Carson says that the armed part of the struggle didn't have much impact. "Indeed, if the ANC had only relied on [that], I'm convinced they would not have been in power today in South Africa," he says, referring to the African National Congress. "What began to turn the tide was involving large segments of the population in peaceful protest."

Just as in the United States, where the civil rights movement was essentially a nonviolent movement, the struggle in South Africa had to be won in terms of world public opinion. Carson says that King and Nelson Mandela "both understood that the struggle would succeed, not in a military sense, but when whites moved from active opposition to neutrality. At that point, King and Mandela understood they had won. Public opinion would not support a brutal crackdown."

In contrast, the escalating violence in the Middle East is solidifying public opinion among Israeli Jews in support of a crackdown, says Carson. "The latest outbreak of violence is simply strengthening the hand of those who favor the rule of force as opposed to those who are open to other kinds of solutions," he says.

In Poland, Carson says, the Solidarity movement in the 1980s modeled some of its tactics, such as boycotts, on the civil rights movement. The fall of communist rule throughout Eastern Europe largely succeeded because a majority of the people ­ men and women of all ages and social backgrounds ­ rose up against it. "All of them were able to be mobilized in a way that nonviolence does more than any other tactic in the world," Carson says. "It offers an opportunity for every part of society to play a role in the struggle. That's something no armed struggle can ever do."

Carson concedes that the conflict in the Middle East is complicated by religious overtones that make compromise difficult. He knows the peace camps on both sides and says, for now, they have been overwhelmed by the hawkish forces. "The easier problems get resolved," he says. "Only the difficult problems are still with us, but they're not impossible." Israel is basically a secular society with a small religious minority that plays a disproportionately powerful role. That makes it difficult to resolve issues such as Jerusalem, a city that has religious significance for Palestinians and Israelis, he says.

Furthermore, Israeli Jews are fearful that the violence that has been part of the struggle will be part of the peace. "If you could guarantee to every Israeli Jew that the moment peace came, there would be no violence, I think you would probably get a settlement," Carson says. "But it is the everyday occurrence of violence that keeps that threat alive and allows the right wing to say it's not going to work."

What King and Gandhi both understood is that the opponents have to see that reconciliation is at the end of the struggle, that there is something better for both sides. "Unless that happens," Carson says, "you're going to have people in the oppressor group with a large stake in keeping things as they are because of fear."

Clayborne Carson