James Lawson Institute

How the World is Proving Martin Luther King Right about Nonviolence

June 13, 2017 Effective Civil Resistance 0

By Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, “How the World is Proving Martin Luther King Right about Nonviolence,” Washington Post, January 18, 2016.

“I left India more convinced than ever before that nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” – “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.,” edited by Clayborne Carson

Since 2011, the world has been a deeply contentious place. Although armed insurgencies rage across the Middle East, the Sahel and Southern Asia, violent civil conflicts are no longer the primary way that people seek to redress their grievances. Instead, from Tunis to Tahrir Square, from Zuccotti Park to Ferguson, from Burkina Faso to Hong Kong, movements worldwide have drawn on the lessons of Gandhi, King and everyday activists at home and abroad to push for change.

Gandhi’s and King’s emphases on nonviolent resistance — in which unarmed people use a coordinated set of strikes, protests, boycotts or other actions to confront an opponent — are not without critics. Some critiques are based on a misunderstanding about what civil resistance is, while others doubt the ability of unarmed and suppressed people to organize and challenge a powerful opponent. With each new movement comes the same set of challenges, including questions about the efficacy of nonviolent action in the face of entrenched power and systemic oppression. In 2011, we published a book exploring these questions and found unexpectedly that campaigns of nonviolent resistance had succeeded more than twice as often as their violent counterparts when seeking to remove incumbent national leaders or gain territorial independence.

To many people, this conclusion may seem naive, but when we drilled into the data, we found that nonviolent resistance campaigns don’t succeed by melting the hearts of their opponents. Instead, they tend to succeed because nonviolent methods have a greater potential for eliciting mass participation — on average, they elicit about 11 times more participants than the average armed uprising — and because this is the source of major power shifts within the opponent regime. Mass participation that draws on diverse segments of society tends to empower and co-opt reformers while cutting off hard-liners from sources of support. When such participation is nonviolent, it increases the chances of pulling the regime’s support from the leadership, allowing security forces, economic elites and civilian bureaucrats to shift their loyalties with less fear of bloody retribution.[…]

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