(This week's post was written by VPT Board Chair Joanne Sheehan)
For those who have been reading A Peace of History, or know the history of the Voluntown Peace Trust, you will recognize a number of people in the history of the roots of revolutionary nonviolence (read the article here: https://www.warresisters.org/roots-revolutionary-nonviolence-united-states-are-black-community), which we hope you will read. The roots of VPT’s own history as the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) grew from roots in the Black community, the transnational solidarity with the anticolonial movement in India, and the solidarity of White allies who were radical pacifists.
As described in the article, Bayard Rustin was one of the Black activists committed to the development of nonviolent action in the US in the late 1930’s. Bayard worked closely with A.J. Muste, a Dutch-born minister whose organizing went back to the Lawrence, Massachusetts strike of 1919. They shared a deep understanding of the importance of strategic nonviolent action and played key roles in spreading the use of nonviolence. They were both co-founders of the Committee for Nonviolent Action in 1957.
The creation of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1942 attracted Marjorie Schaeffer Swann, another CNVA co-founder. As Marian Mollin (who lived at Ahimsa Lodge at VPT) wrote in her book Radical Pacifism in Modern America:
“CORE organized its campaigns around discipline and deliberation, always militant but never reckless or hasty. Marjorie Swann, a young white pacifist who joined Chicago CORE as a charter member, recalled that “any time you did anything...there were certain rules. Nobody could do anything, even picket, without getting the training!” CORE’s well-disciplined tactics and carefully planned protests were strikingly successful.”
Nonviolence training was important to the preparation for action, and also helped deepen the understanding of nonviolent action. Wally Nelson and Juanita Morrow (Nelson), two Black activists involved in the early Civil Rights Movement, were both pioneers in the war tax resistance movement, nonviolence trainers, early CORE members, co-founders of the Peacemakers, and also worked closely with CNVA for decades.
In 1947, sixteen Black and white men, mostly war resisters, participated in the Journey of Reconciliation, an integrated interstate bus ride that became the inspiration for the better-known Freedom Rides of 1961. Over half of the participants became active in CNVA.
Polaris Action was organized by CNVA iIn the summer of 1960. Together with Peacemakers they organized a 16- day training in New London, CT. This brought together many of the people who had been actively developing nonviolence over the previous 20 years. Among the 24 listed as Faculty: Richard Gregg who wrote “The Power of Nonviolence” in the late thirties, co-founder of the Harlem Ashram Ralph Templin, Wally and Juanita Nelson and several others involved in war tax resistance, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham, AL who was a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Barbara Deming came to the training as a skeptical journalist, stayed for the remainder of the training and became a committed nonviolent activist.
In the mid 1970’s Marj Swann, who learned about nonviolence training in 1942 from CORE, and Bernard Lafayette who was one of the Nashville students trained by Rev. James Lawson in 1960, co-facilitated a “Training for Trainers in Boston. American Friends Service Committee staff person Suki Rice participated and went on to train the first Clamshell Alliance activists who occupied the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in 1976, and helped design the participatory process and structure of nonviolent actions based on training and affinity groups.
There are so many lessons that we can learn from these stories. We need to know and appreciate the history of nonviolent social change, particularly as so much of it was brought to us by Brown and Black people. As the movement today looks at how to center the people most affected by racial inequality and racial injustice and how to understand the role of white allies, we can learn from our Elders in the overlapping social movements of the 20th century. The lessons of solidarity, building trusting relationships, taking the time to learn skills through trainings, and developing strategy were, and remain, key to transforming society.
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