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'Movement Schools’ and Dialogical Diffusion of Nonviolent Praxis: Nashville Workshops in the Southern Civil Rights Movement


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While it is generally well-known that nonviolent collective action was widely deployed in the U.S. southern civil rights movement, there is still much that we do not know about how that came to be. Drawing on primary data that consist of detailed semi-structured interviews with members of the Nashville nonviolent movement during the late 1950s and 1960s, we contribute unique insights about how the nonviolent repertoire was diffused into one movement current that became integral to moving the wider southern movement. Innovating with the concept of serially-linked movement schools—-locations where the deeply intense work took place, the didactic and dialogical labor of analyzing, experimenting, creatively translating, and re-socializing human agents in preparation for dangerous performance—we follow the biographical paths of carriers of the nonviolent Gandhian repertoire as it was learned, debated, transformed, and carried from India to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and Howard University to Nashville (TN) and then into multiple movement campaigns across the South. Members of the Nashville movement core cadre—products of the Nashville movement workshop schools—were especially important because they served as bridging leaders by serially-linking schools and collective action campaigns. In this way they played critical roles in bridging structural holes (places where movement had yet to be successfully established) and were central to diffusing the movement throughout the South. Our theoretical and empirical approach contributes to the development of the dialogical perspective on movement diffusion generally and to knowledge about how the nonviolent repertoire became integral to the U.S. civil rights movement in particular.
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Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change
Emerald Book Chapter: "Movement Schools" and Dialogical Diffusion of
Nonviolent Praxis: Nashville Workshops in the Southern Civil Rights
Larry W. Isaac, Daniel B. Cornfield, Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson,
Jonathan S. Coley
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To cite this document: Larry W. Isaac, Daniel B. Cornfield, Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson, Jonathan S. Coley, ""Movement
Schools" and Dialogical Diffusion of Nonviolent Praxis: Nashville Workshops in the Southern Civil Rights Movement", Sharon
Erickson Nepstad, Lester R. Kurtz, in (ed.) Nonviolent Conflict and Civil Resistance (Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and
Change, Volume 34), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 155 - 184
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Larry W. Isaac, Daniel B. Cornfield, Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson, Jonathan S. Coley, ""Movement Schools" and Dialogical
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Larry W. Isaac, Daniel B. Cornfield, Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson, Jonathan S. Coley, ""Movement Schools" and Dialogical
Diffusion of Nonviolent Praxis: Nashville Workshops in the Southern Civil Rights Movement", Sharon Erickson Nepstad, Lester R.
Kurtz, in (ed.) Nonviolent Conflict and Civil Resistance (Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Volume 34), Emerald
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Larry W. Isaac, Daniel B. Cornfield,
Dennis C. Dickerson, James M. Lawson Jr. and
Jonathan S. Coley
While it is generally well known that nonviolent collective action was
widely deployed in the US southern civil rights movement, there is still
We are deeply grateful to all interviewees, veterans of the southern civil rights movement, who
gave so generously of their time and knowledge of ‘‘the movement.’’ Without them, so much would
have been impossible including this project. We acknowledge financial support from Vanderbilt
University College of Arts and Science, Vanderbilt University Interdisciplinary Discovery Grant,
the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Endowment, Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies, and the
Vanderbilt Commons. We thank the following people who played important roles in the project:
Kathy Conkwright (videography); Rosevelt Noble (videography); Cathy Kaiser (interview
transcription); Stephanie Pruitt (Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies); and students in several
Vanderbilt University seminars. For helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper, we
thank the editors, Lester R. Kurtz and Sharon Nepstad, and three anonymous reviewers.
Nonviolent Conflict and Civil Resistance
Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Volume 34, 155–184
Copyright r2012 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 0163-786X/doi:10.1108/S0163-786X(2012)0000034010
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much that we do not know about how that came to be. Drawing on
primary data that consist of detailed semistructured interviews with
members of the Nashville nonviolent movement during the late 1950s and
1960s, we contribute unique insights about how the nonviolent repertoire
was diffused into one movement current that became integral to moving
the wider southern movement. Innovating with the concept of serially
linked movement schools – locations where the deeply intense work took
place, the didactic and dialogical labor of analyzing, experimenting,
creatively translating, and resocializing human agents in preparation for
dangerous performance – we follow the biographical paths of carriers of
the nonviolent Gandhian repertoire as it was learned, debated,
transformed, and carried from India to the Fellowship of Reconciliation
(FOR) and Howard University to Nashville (TN) and then into multiple
movement campaigns across the South. Members of the Nashville
movement core cadre – products of the Nashville movement workshop
schools – were especially important because they served as bridging
leaders by serially linking schools and collective action campaigns. In this
way, they played critical roles in bridging structural holes (places where
the movement had yet to be successfully established) and were central
to diffusing the movement throughout the South. Our theoretical and
empirical approach contributes to the development of the dialogical
perspective on movement diffusion generally and to knowledge about how
the nonviolent repertoire became integral to the US civil rights movement
in particular.
Keywords: Civil rights movement; Nashville civil rights movement;
nonviolence; Gandhian repertoire; movement schools; diffusion
It is generally well known that the southern civil rights movement made
effective use of nonviolent civil resistance (or collective action) strategy from
the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s (McAdam, 1982;Morris, 1984). But we
know much less about how the diffusion of such a foreign praxis
– the
Gandhian nonviolent repertoire – was even possible. Two oceans, more than
two decades, and vastly different cultural and political systems separated the
famous Dandi Salt March in India from the emergence of the mass southern
civil rights movement in the United States. How did the Gandhian
nonviolent repertoire come to form the strategic heart of the southern
struggle against the Jim Crow system?
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Social movement scholars have long been interested in the important role
of movement diffusion, the process by which some movement-related
innovation in oppositional culture is carried or transmitted to new or
existing members of a movement (Andrews & Biggs, 2006;Conell & Cohn,
1995;Givan, Roberts, & Soule, 2010;Myers, 2000) or from one movement
to another movement (Isaac & Christiansen, 2002). In simplest terms, a
movement in one temporal-spatial site is influenced by a movement in a
different temporal-spatial location. Conventional social science theories
and models of diffusion have generated useful insights into the question of
‘‘how movements move’’ (Isaac, 2008), but also contain limitations,
including a representation of simple information transmission based on
questionable assumptions (more below).
Important research also exists on the diffusion of the Gandhian non-
violent repertoire globally and especially into the US civil rights movement
(Chabot, 2000;Chabot 2010;Dickerson, 2005;Fox, 1997;Isserman, 1993;
Kapur, 1992;Scalmer, 2002, 2011). Some of this work contains a dialogical
approach that attempts to move beyond conventional information
transmission models in an effort to understand the difficult interactive
process that diffusion of movement elements often, and especially the
repertoire in this case, entails (Chabot, 2010).
We pursue a strategy designed to unpack (not the only but) one of the
central avenues for the diffusion of nonviolent praxis from the Gandhian
independence struggles in India into the southern civil rights movement.
This ‘‘unpacking’’ is assisted by addressing three core questions about the
movement diffusion process (see Givan et al., 2010, p. 2): (1) what speci-
fically is being diffused, (2) how does the diffusion occur (i.e., what channels,
relations, carriers, or mechanisms are operating in the process), and (3) what
is the impact of the diffusion?
First, we focus on the diffusion of both the ideational (philosophy) and
the behavioral (tactical) applications of nonviolence, the Gandhian
Second, to get at the ‘‘how’’ of this diffusion process, we make
use of the conventional concepts of ‘‘direct’’ personal and ‘‘mediated’’
channels (Tarrow, 2005), but we also push deeper into those relationships to
illustrate more than just contact and the simple transmission of information.
Information was being carried and reworked through the structured
biographical trajectories of individuals who, in the process, were being
transformed themselves as they transformed others. These key players
acquired, learned, debated, taught, practiced, struggled, and carried the
nonviolent praxis with them from one key movement school – the Nashville
workshops – to struggles in Nashville and campaigns across the South.
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To understand the diffusion process, it is important to know not only about
contacts – direct and mediated – but also about biographical trajectory
(including the migration of individuals) – before and after said ‘‘contact’’ –
and what was done in the ‘‘contact.’’
We locate the movement of key individuals as carriers of nonviolent
praxis within and between movement schools. Each ‘‘school’’ was forged by
special conditions of institutional location as well as the development of the
movement itself: Our first major stop focuses on an institution of higher
education and black religious intellectual activity, Howard University.
From Howard University and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) we
trace a key path of diffusion to Nashville, Tennessee, and the development
of perhaps the most impressive nonviolent workshops in the entire move-
ment. This school was an organized, underground site where the deeply
intense work took place, the dialogical labor of analyzing, experimenting,
and resocializing human agents who had previously been shaped by a
culture of violence.
What about the third key dimension – diffusion impact? We argue
that the diffusion path of nonviolent praxis that traveled from India
through FOR and Howard University was most effectively cultivated in
the Nashville workshops. We trace the driving role of these workshop
‘‘graduates’’ as they carried nonviolent praxis extending the movement
across the South. The committed, disciplined young activists trained in the
Nashville workshops served both as an inspirational and practical model,
actively maintaining movement momentum at critical moments in the
struggle, a major impact of the diffusion process.
Much of our empirical foundation is drawn from our study of the
Nashville civil rights movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Our
unique primary data consist of lengthy semistructured interviews of
Nashville movement participants (more below). Detailed interview data
allow us to unpack and exploit the richness of the dialogical perspective on
movement diffusion.
In general, diffusion directs our attention to the ‘‘socially mediated spread
of some practice within a population’’ (Strang & Meyer, 1993, p. 487). In
social movement studies, diffusion typically refers to the flow or spread of
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an innovation in movement culture (e.g., strategy, organizational form,
tactic, frame, symbolism, or slogan) from one geographical location to
another or from one movement to another. Key questions addressed by
movement scholars center on the social conditions that facilitate diffusion
and the mechanisms or channels through which an innovation travels
(Andrews & Biggs, 2006;Conell & Cohn, 1995;Kim & Pfaff, 2012;Myers,
2000;Oberschall, 1989;Roscigno & Danaher, 2001;Soule, 2004).
The dominant diffusion paradigm in social movement studies is some
variant of the ‘‘transmission model’’ (Chabot, 2010). An exemplar of this
approach, Tarrow’s (2005) The New Transnational Activism represents an
impressive synthesis of movement diffusion research into an integrated
model that presupposes ‘‘the large impersonal processes that lie in the
background of all forms of transnational diffusion’’ – internationalization
and communication (Tarrow, 2005, p. 103). Once an innovative event
occurs, diffusion moves along one or more of three major pathways that
connect it to new members or a different movement in a different temporal-
spatial site. In relational diffusion, based on an attribution of similarity,
information about innovative movement culture travels through direct
contact embedded in bonds of affiliation and personal networks. Mediated
diffusion works through an intermediary, a third party, who brokers or
bridges individuals or organizations who do not have direct contact with
each other. Finally, nonrelational diffusion is involved when there is no direct
or personal mediated contact, but instead information flows through
electronic technologies like mass media or the Internet. The central focus,
irrespective of channeling mechanism, is the transmission of information. All
mechanisms lead to the same basic outcome: emulation – the adoption of the
transmitter’s ideas, symbols, or practices by new receivers; and general-
ization of action – the spread of movement frames, strategies, tactics, or
campaigns beyond its initial local setting (Chabot, 2010).
There is value in this transmission model, which has been employed in
studies such as Andrews and Biggs (2006) on the diffusion of the 1960s sit-
ins. It allows the analysis of key mechanisms across many diverse cases
(here, cities) with potential for isolating relatively important conditions. It is
useful for mapping a set of relations/channels through which a certain kind
of diffusion and conditions of its existence might operate. Of course, there
are limitations to the transmission model too. For one, it is not especially
helpful for analyzing in-depth interactive processes people experience in
acquiring knowledge of complex ideas and practices regarding social
change-directed collective action. It does not tell us how the underlying
philosophy and practice of nonviolence – so central to the sit-ins – arrived in
Nashville Workshops and Diffusion of Nonviolence 159
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the American South, how actual people acquired, explored, debated, taught,
and learned from each other, carrying the nonviolent praxis across the
region designing specific tactical innovations like sit-ins. The transmission
model, with its superficial information flow, says nothing of the struggle, the
labor involved in acquiring proficiency with the nonviolent habitus, a
predisposition and way of acting to confront oppressive conditions and to
face direct assault in the process.
The emerging ‘‘dialogical perspective’’ offers a different approach to
diffusion in social movement studies, one that problematizes awareness,
understanding, agency, and implementation of new movement culture.
Earlier conceptual developments – Strang and Meyer’s (1993) ‘‘theoriza-
tion’’ of both movement innovations as well as transmitters and adopters,
and Snow and Benford’s (1999) focus on the location of agency in the
transmitter/adopter relationship – prefigured some features of the dialogical
model. But this perspective has been most clearly developed by studies of the
diffusion of nonviolence into the southern civil rights movement (e.g.,
Chabot, 2000, 2010;Fox, 1997;Isserman, 1993;Kapur, 1992;Scalmer,
2002, 2011).
The work of Chabot (2000, 2010) and Scalmer (2002, 2011) in particular
have significantly advanced the dialogical diffusion model. Scalmer (2002)
conceptualizes diffusion as ‘‘sustained labor of cultural, intellectual, and
practical translation.’’ He stresses that Gandhian ideas and tactics were
transmitted, reinvented, and reinterpreted across the globe. This process was
actualized in various movements where nonviolence was adapted to parti-
cular national contexts in activities of ‘‘framing and experiment.’’ Scalmer
highlights the active role of US civil rights advocates in adopting the
Gandhian praxis even after Gandhi was dead, and how that repertoire was
transformed as it entered southern civil rights discourse.
The Gandhian repertoire was known, at least by some in the US, as early
as 1920, and penetrated intellectual and activist circles during the 1930s and
1940s, but did not begin to appear in practice until the 1940s and 1950s.
Why such a slow sequence of adaptation? A combination of conditions help
explain this lag in actual implementation and suggest the value of the
dialogical theory. First, because modern international electronic media did
not exist, most serious carrying of the Gandhian repertoire was done by
individuals who visited India with a distinct purpose of learning about the
approach. Second, there were cultural impediments to rapid adoption, even
among those who were interested and eager to do so. As Fox (1997) has
argued, both ‘‘Orientalist hyper-difference’’ (extremely exaggerated Other-
ness) and its opposite, ‘‘Western over-likeness’’ (an assimilation of identity
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with Christian nonresistance, reducing it to the more familiar pacifism in the
West), worked to delay the diffusion of the Gandhian praxis into the
southern civil rights movement. Finally, the implementation on the ground
was shaped, in part, by conditions stimulating mass movement actions
(e.g., political, organizational, mass consciousness – see McAdam, 1982;
Morris, 1984). However, the decade between the late 1940s and the
1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott should not be understood as a period
of Gandhian hibernation. The civil rights commitments of Gandhian
adherents were seldom singular. Prominent black Gandhian advocates –
such as Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Bayard Rustin – were equally
fervent in their support for a range of civil rights organizations. Rarely in
those early years did Gandhian adherents restrict themselves solely to non-
violent direct action strategies for black advancement, as activists tended to
divide their time and energies among multiple initiatives and methodologies
in the fight for black equality of which Gandhian advocacy was only one.
Dialogical diffusion theory complicates the picture painted by the
transmission model with its monological (unidirectional), usually rapid,
superficial communication flow from transmitters to adopters. The dia-
logical perspective sees diffusion of movement culture (especially when it is
moving transnationally from one culture to another) as typically con-
troversial and labor intensive. ‘‘For complex tactics and repertoires to travel
across vast distances without losing their substance requires meaningful
dialogue – not just impersonal communication’’ (Chabot, 2010, p. 104).
Chabot offers a dialogical process theory that involves four basic phases of
diffusion development – awareness, translation, experimentation, and
movement application – and notes that this process ‘‘is never certain or
easy for the individuals or groups involved; it requires high levels of political
agency and endless collective struggle’’ (p. 108), especially by adopters.
Chabot’s dialogical perspective is valuable for understanding the diffusion
of the Gandhian repertoire into the US southern civil rights movement. At the
empirical level, Chabot does a fine job of tracing key lines of nonviolent
relocation and development in the United States up to the 1950s. However,
the weakness in his study is that the empirical analysis (especially beyond the
1950s) does not always live up to the theory – i.e., the analysis does not really
unpack the dialogical learning process which his model, rightly in our
judgment, posits as essential to the diffusion of the nonviolent repertoire. The
intensive labor, debate, struggle involved in learning, translating, and
applying the foreign repertoire would require not only tremendous effort
but also places – movement schools – to struggle with the difficult ideas before
ever applying them in confrontations with Jim Crow.
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The difficult processes of translating, learning, experimenting, and adopting
unusual oppositional repertoires to a new cultural context – like nonviolent
praxis from Gandhian use in India – required organized places where intense
interaction could take root, where active agents could challenge and learn
from each other. There is recognition of this concern in some social
movement diffusion theory. For example, a ‘‘critical community,’’ accord-
ing to Rochon (1998, p. 22), is where innovative ideas for social change are
generated among a ‘‘relatively small community of critical thinkers who
have developed a sensitivity to some problem, an analysis of the sources of
the problem, and prescription for what should be done about the problem,’’
while movements ‘‘bring the new ideas of critical communities to a wide
audience’’ (Rochon, 1998, p. 30). Some portions of the diffusion of non-
violent praxis into the civil rights movement do, indeed, seem to resemble
this dual division of labor described by Rochon. But the process was, in fact,
more complex and variegated.
The concrete social organization of movement schools can take a variety
of specific forms. Scholars have long pointed to the significance of
segregated black institutional development – especially churches and centers
of higher education – in the emergence of the mass movement (e.g.,
McAdam, 1982). These venues were important because they served as hubs
of discussion and diffusion of new movement-related ideas. ‘‘Movement
churches’’ were typically headed by young, movement-oriented preachers
(often SCLC-connected) linked to ‘‘local movement centers’’ (Morris, 1984,
pp. 283–86). These churches had features of movement schools where
congregations would be engaged with gospel and movement-related issues.
Some black universities were also key centers of movement debate and
learning, including nonviolent praxis. Howard University was a prime
example (more below) of an important black educational institution that
housed intellectuals who theorized (Strang & Meyer, 1993) the Gandhian
repertoire and its agents, especially critical in the early ‘‘awareness and
translation’’ phases in foreign oppositional culture diffusion. These were
movement schools in the sense that they worked, at least in part, as centers
where movement concerns, issues, and oppositional culture became
integrated with other aspects of their main institutional mission.
Movement schooling also took place in well-known national-level social
movement organizations – like NAACP, CORE, SCLC, and SNCC. Other
movement schools took the form of ‘‘movement halfway houses,’’ like the
Highlander Folk Center in Monteagle, Tennessee, and the FOR (Morris,
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1984). As Edwards and McCarthy (1992, p. 549) put it, these movement
mentoring organizations ‘‘encourage, support, and facilitate collective
action, but typically are not the organizational vehicles of that action.’’
Mentors in this arena help prepare potential activists, but then recede into
the background when movement begins to take off (p. 542).
The Nashville workshops (featured most centrally below) were yet
another but more direct and distinctive form of movement school. They
were different because they were exclusively about teaching oppositional
culture for change and training insurgents to do it; they engaged in
nonviolent direct action; they were organically embedded in not peripheral
to a local community ‘‘movement center’’ (Morris, 1984); the chief mentor
was a teacher and a participant in nonviolent direct action; and they had
regularity and duration running in Nashville from 1958 through 1961. These
dimensions of distinction were keys to the Nashville movement’s success and
to its cadre’s impact in and beyond Nashville.
To unpack the dialogical diffusion process, ideally one needs access to
ethnographic observational data and in-depth interviews with those who
moved through intensive learning inside movement schools. The ethno-
graphic opportunity has past, in this case, but the detailed interviews with
participants are precisely what we provide in the analysis.
Much of our empirical foundation is drawn from our long-term study of
the early Nashville civil rights movement spanning the late 1950s and early
1960s. Our unique primary data consist of lengthy (ranging from 1 to 8
hours) semistructured interviews of a demographically and socioeconomi-
cally diverse, purposive snowball sample of 38 Nashville movement core
cadre and grassroots participants conducted between 2007 and 2012. We
identified the interviewees from previous work on the Nashville movement
(Halberstam, 1998), discussions with the Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr.,
and referrals from interviewees. In the present study we feature mostly
members of the core cadre. Our detailed interview data allow us to unpack
and exploit the richness of the dialogical approach to understand the
diffusion process as these activists experienced it.
Cognizant of the limitations of retrospective interviews, we have taken
measures to minimize shortcomings that could derive from interviewees’
recall of events that transpired over four decades prior to our interviews.
First, we developed and piloted the semistructured interview schedule with
Nashville Workshops and Diffusion of Nonviolence 163
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the Reverend Lawson who, as a key player in the Nashville movement,
provided insider knowledge and access to interviewees.
Second, for topics
in our interviews that were also covered in previous treatments of the
Nashville movement, we discerned that our interviewees provided reliable
information with similar content to that of prior sources. Third, in recalling
experiences they shared with other movement participants, we checked that
our interviewees provided consistent and reliable responses to our
questions. If a response seemed especially unusual, we checked it against
other sources.
Kelly Miller Smith and James M. Lawson, Jr., key leaders in the Nashville
movement, though learning about Gandhi from different sources, traced
important links between themselves and India. Smith’s was mediated by
black intellectuals at Howard University, while Lawson’s was both mediated
by FOR and also direct. Smith, the pastor of Nashville’s First Baptist
Church – Capitol Hill, was a graduate of Howard’s School of Religion,
which housed black religious scholars who were deeply engaged in discourse
about Gandhian strategy and civil rights. A core of four professors and
deans – Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, William
Stuart Nelson – had traveled to India and met with (or studied) Gandhi on
multiple occasions, and Mays envisaged the seminary as a training ground
for an ‘‘insurgent Negro professional clergy,’’ a vision shared by the others
(Dickerson, 2005, pp. 219–223, 228;Jelks, 2002, pp. 32, 35).
In addition to teaching students, like Kelly Miller Smith, these black
scholars reached wider audiences with their written work. Their books –
e.g., Nelson’s The Christian Way in Race Relations (1947) and Thurman’s
Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) – explored connections between Christ-
ianity and Gandhian nonviolence. At the core of this provocative discourse
lay Gandhian nonviolence, which offered a philosophy and praxis that
helped colonial India defeat their British oppressors. Perhaps, this
methodology could do the same for African Americans (Dickerson, 2005,
pp. 228–232).
After Martin Luther King and others organized the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference in 1957, Smith and Andrew White, another 1940s
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graduate of Howard’s School of Religion, determined that SCLC’s first
affiliate should start in Nashville, leading to the Nashville Christian
Leadership Conference (NCLC) in 1958 with Smith president and White
secretary (De Gregory, 2007, pp. 57–60;Dickerson, 2009, p. 186;Smith,
1960). Although Smith was president of the Nashville NAACP, he saw a
need for the NCLC because it would ‘‘emphasize the moral and spiritual
implications of the struggle.’’ Nonetheless, he had yet to decide that
nonviolence would be the group’s preferred methodology. His meeting with
James M. Lawson, Jr., and Glenn Smiley of FOR resolved this issue
for him. Lawson and Smiley convinced Smith to allow them ‘‘to present
the idea of nonviolence [to] the group.’’ Though many NCLC members
‘‘were totally unfamiliar with anything that had to do with nonviolence,’’
the method was ultimately adopted because ‘‘it belonged in the context of
the Christian faith.’’ Smith’s exposure to Gandhian nonviolence lay within
his relationship to Nelson and in his admiration for King and the
Montgomery bus boycott. Though vaguely committed to an organization
associated with moral and spiritual values, Lawson convinced Smith to
ground these principles in Gandhian satyagraha (Smith, 1960), literally
‘‘clinging to Truth.’’
Lawson was raised in Massillon, Ohio, the son of a militant minister who
served as a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. As an
undergraduate at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, Lawson attended a
lecture by FOR’s executive director, A. J. Muste, that stressed that pacifism
originated within Christianity. Lawson became a FOR member and remem-
bered that Muste credited Gandhi with ‘‘helping the pacifist movement [to]
understand that pacifism was not passivity or nonresistance, but was really
an active, militant theory of struggle.’’ Lawson agreed, noting that non-
violence ‘‘had its spiritual, biblical, [and] theological mores in Jesus and the
Bible.’’ Meeting Muste proved to be a pivotal moment in Lawson’s
intellectual development because it helped Lawson refine his understanding
of nonviolence and how it extended beyond pacifism. He juxtaposed
FOR pacifism and Gandhian nonviolence and determined that Muste
mainly stood for noncooperation with evil while Gandhi promoted coura-
geous confrontation with inhumane structures and practices. As a result,
Lawson saw a need ‘‘to understand Gandhi’’ even more by ‘‘reading his
autobiography’’ and other writings about his philosophy and praxis.
Dialogue with Muste helped to transform Lawson into a Gandhian
adherent (Lawson interview, 2007).
As a result of his encounter with Muste and his deepening exploration of
Gandhi’s ideas, Lawson became a conscientious objector during the Korean
Nashville Workshops and Diffusion of Nonviolence 165
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War. He remembered that ‘‘by 1949 I recognized that I could not follow
Jesus and fight anybody’s war’’ (Lawson interview, 2007). After a trial,
Lawson was sent to federal prison. After his release, he worked for the
Methodist Youth Fellowship and then he was off to India. He became a
coach and chaplain at Hislop College in Nagpur, India, from 1953 to 1956,
where he also studied the Gandhian repertoire, the implications of the
Bible for nonviolence, and the world history of nonviolent struggles. His
enrollment at Oberlin Seminary brought him in contact with King, who was
invited to speak about the Montgomery campaign. Lawson, who had read
about the bus boycott while in India, explained to King why his
achievements had international significance. King convinced Lawson to
move south to work in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Lawson
agreed and became a FOR southern field agent.
The political culture and institutional infrastructure of Nashville were
important for drawing key players to the city. Methodist Church head-
quarters, clergy contacts, and the relative autonomy of the black middle-
class from the white power structure were all important to Lawson’s
decision to use Nashville as his laboratory for ‘‘making many Montgom-
erys’’ (Lawson interview, 2007). The extensive black higher educational
complex was central to attracting a sizeable pool of young, bright, energetic
black students, the source of key personnel for Lawson’s workshops and the
bodies for local insurgencies.
C.T. Vivian moved from Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville’s American Baptist
Theological Seminary (ABTS), bringing experience with restaurant sit-ins
sponsored by CORE in Illinois (Vivian interview). Other key student mem-
bers of what would eventuate into Lawson’s core cadre included John Lewis
(from rural Alabama), James Bevel (from Mississippi), Bernard Lafayette
(from Tampa), all three to ABTS; Rodney Powell (from Philadelphia) and
Gloria Johnson (from Roxbury, Massachusetts) to Meharry Medical
School; Diane Nash (from Chicago), Marion Barry (from Memphis),
Angelina Butler (from South Carolina), and white exchange students
Paul LaPrad (from Indiana) and Jim Zwerg (from Wisconsin), all to Fisk
University along with others from Tennessee A&I, Peabody and Scarritt
Colleges. Moving from various parts of the country because of Nashville’s
schools, these young people were now (unwittingly) in close physical
proximity to a very different sort of school.
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After Lawson entered Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1958, he met Kelly
Miller Smith. Two results followed their encounter. First, Smith invited
Lawson to conduct nonviolent workshops under NCLC auspices and
appointed him to the NCLC executive committee as Actions Director.
Second, Smith and Lawson tested and refined, through these workshops,
critiques and reflections about the deployment of Gandhian nonviolence
in the Nashville movement. Lawson also continued to work for FOR, tra-
veling around the South, lecturing, doing workshops, and coordinating
action plans with grassroots activists – in short, ‘‘seeding’’ the southern
region for the sit-in wave that was to come.
Initially, the workshops started as an ‘‘adult movement.’’ Films about the
Montgomery bus boycott were shown, and nonviolence was discussed
as a strategy that might be used to redress Nashville’s racial issues. Smith
enlisted Lawson’s assistance because he ‘‘had more know how in the prac-
tical application of nonviolence than anybody we knew.’’ Lawson instituted
the workshops ‘‘on a continuing basis’’ as decisions were made in 1959 to
focus on the desegregation of lunch counters. ‘‘It seem[ed],’’ according to
Smith (1960), that lunch counters could be ‘‘an opening wedge’’ and ‘‘would
lend itself to good nonviolence technique.’’ Smith noted that Lawson ‘‘came
to me and asked what would I think about asking some students from the
campuses to the workshops.’’ This ‘‘wonderful idea’’ exceeded Smith’s
expectations because ‘‘students came and they became interested beyond
the interest of the adults who had begun it’’ (Smith, 1960). Yet, the
Nashville campaign was never only a student movement; it was always
linked to the NCLC, Kelly Miller Smith, and wider black community
(Lawson interview, 2012).
Smith and Lawson experimented with nonviolent tactics. Despite their
eventual success, Smith said these nonviolent techniques ‘‘developed out of
our situation’’ and at times ‘‘we were fumbling [and] making mistakes.’’
Smith indicated that the application of Gandhian nonviolence was imperfect
and not everyone fully comprehended its principles and objectives. When
invited by his Howard University mentor, William S. Nelson, to speak at
Howard about the Nashville movement, Smith poignantly observed that ‘‘it
[nonviolence] is developing into a way of life for some of the persons who
have participated,’’ but it has been ‘‘chiefly a technique, an instrument that
has proved successful in attacking certain problems.’’ Yet, few nonviolent
followers morphed into American Gandhians (Smith, 1960).
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Although Smith initially discussed nonviolence as an opportune tech-
nique, Lawson used the workshops to infuse black religious culture with
Gandhian principles. He presented nonviolence as intrinsic to under-
standing the Bible, the ministry of Jesus, and as a salient theme in scriptural
interpretation. ‘‘The thing that I had done,’’ Lawson recalled, ‘‘probably
more than a good number of people who were pacifists,’’ centered on
translating ‘‘the Bible into nonviolent pacifist terms with the critique of
violence.’’ This perspective allowed Lawson to articulate ‘‘the theory and
philosophy that undergirds nonviolence.’’ His view emphasized ‘‘the spirit
of forgiveness [and] the spirit of not wanting to do injury to others even
though they had done injury to you.’’ These ideas, Lawson argued, lay ‘‘at
the heart of nonviolent theory’’ (Lawson interview, 2007). But importantly,
the praxis being taught was not pacifism, but rather militant nonviolent
direct action.
Smith and Lawson required Gandhian principles and praxis to speak to
the African American context. They brought satyagraha into the Nashville
movement and addressed it to the black activist tradition and religious
culture. Smith believed that black Nashville activists accepted Gandhian
techniques because of their preference for usable ideas and tactics to defeat
Jim Crow. Lawson recognized that African Americans, whatever the depth
of their Christian spirituality, understood and appreciated the language
and culture of the black religious heritage. Therefore, he communicated
Gandhian nonviolence through the medium of scripture and presented Jesus
and others as Biblical proponents of nonviolence and as precursors to
Gandhi. Smith and Lawson integrated Gandhian philosophy and techni-
ques into the Nashville movement. They also compelled the advocates of
competing strategies to react to its dynamic development and diffusion into
other organizations and initiatives in the broader black freedom struggle.
There were no specifically designed texts. For the pedagogical content in
workshop teachings, Lawson drew from an amalgam of sources and
methods: Biblical scriptures pertaining to Jesus and pacifism; anecdotes
from John Wesley’s journals in which the Methodist founder faced down
hostile mobs; Gandhi in South Africa and India; episodes in the American
Revolution and from American labor strikes; nonviolent responses to Nazi
occupation in Denmark; and details of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Lawson and Vivian also drew on previous experiences with CORE. Mock
lunch counter scenes were used in a role-playing approach to teach and
select those who would be best able to execute the nonviolent tactics in
practice (Lawson interview, 2012; also documentary films by Hampton,
1987;York, 2000). Lawson emphasized a four-step process in Gandhian
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protest, including (1) focus – what issue/problem would be identified;
assessment of the issue, planning, and selection of a target; (2) planning the
campaign; (3) launching the campaign and negotiations; and (4) follow-up,
including the development of agreements for change (Lawson interview, 2012).
One of the truly remarkable features of the Nashville movement was
the organizational infrastructure built by Smith, Lawson, and others (see
Fig. 1). Not only was Lawson one of the architects but he was the lynchpin –
present in each node of the organizational network – that linked student
leaders from local colleges (via the Student Central Committee) to the
movement church (via Smith’s Church) and the broader Black community
(via NCLC), both sides feeding into Lawson’s workshops which served as
‘‘command central’’ for recruiting, training, planning, organizing, and
eventually launching the insurgent actions of the Nashville movement. This
set of organizational linkages constituted a local movement center (Morris,
1984, p. 40), with workshops embedded in and fueled by the local student
and community organizations. The NCLC provided community support,
revenue, legal, and medical assistance; the Student Central Committee
mobilized the young bodies that would be put on the line; and Lawson’s
workshops were literally local movement schools.
Institutions: Fisk,
Tenn. A&I
ABTS, Meharry
Student Central
Leaders from all
Schools (Lawson)
First Baptist Rev.
Kelly Miller
NCLC: Smith
& Lawson
Fig. 1. Nashville Movement’s Local Organizational Infrastructure.
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It is important to understand the ways in which the workshops functioned
as schools. First they were, in a Deweyian (Dewey (1944/1916, pp. 18–19)
sense, deliberately constructed and regulated environments within which the
‘‘mental and moral disposition of their members’’ could be shaped and
influenced. The deliberately constructed environments, the physical places,
were important. The oppositional culture and philosophical and practical
conversations that were to lead to insurgent actions were largely hidden
in relatively safe spaces of basements and backrooms of various black
churches, especially Clark Memorial United Methodist (near Fisk Univer-
sity) and Smith’s First Baptist.
Second, there was a curriculum of sorts, an intentionally designed but
fluid lesson plan that consisted of an oppositional culture centered on the
praxis of nonviolent direct action. It was that praxis which would be
animated through the students in the form of confrontations with specific
laws and norms of the local Jim Crow system. The workshops were the little
incubator, the laboratory to experiment with and cultivate the beginning of
‘‘many Montgomerys,’’ Lawson’s hope for expanding and accelerating the
pace of the movement into a nonviolent revolution.
Lawson faced major challenges before he and his students were to
confront local Jim Crow. The students who came to his workshops already
carried hot emotions – anger and resentment – and Lawson was careful not
to fuel these feelings (Hogan, 2007). He moved carefully, slowly, and
deliberately to channel youthful energy and emotion into a resocialization
process that would transform them into disciplined nonviolent warriors. But
before they could be schooled in the praxis of nonviolent direct action,
Lawson had to first persuade these mostly skeptical young people – who
clearly understood the power asymmetry between themselves and the system
they hoped to change – of several difficult truths. First, he had to convince
them that they were somebody. Years of internalized racism – feelings of
self-doubt, inferiority, shame, and anger – had to be converted into an
engine of pride, strength, and determination. Second, he had to show them
that because their idea for change was big and just (also Halberstam, 1998,
p. 61), so too would the numbers who would follow them be large and carry
tremendous force. Finally, Lawson had to convince them that nonviolence
provided the answer, the key, to the age-old riddle – how do the relatively
powerless confront power without succumbing to its violent tactics (thus
perpetuating a vicious cycle) and without committing self-annihilation in the
process? Embedded in and products of a dominant violent American
culture, this would be no small task. Many
students fully admitted that they
were initially very skeptical of this philosophy, especially the idea of
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absorbing a violent attack without an in-kind counter-response. Yet, they
continued to attend the movement school. They wanted to fight for change
and were truly attracted to their mentor. For instance, John Lewis (inter-
view) said of Lawson:
He was very smart, brilliant. He persuaded us. He came across as the embodiment, as the
personification of the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. He was not just
preaching a sermon. In a sense he was living it. ythe concept of the beloved
community ymaking Nashville an open city yan all-inclusive community yit was
very appealing to me yThat ordinary people, students, could change the world.
Others commented on Lawson’s teaching abilities in similar ways: ‘‘a
remarkable teacher-facilitator-leader’’ (Murphy interview); ‘‘he was very bril-
liant ycareful, caring, sophisticated yvery intense’’ (Lafayette interview).
The young participants described the workshops as typically consisting of
two segments: one in which Lawson would teach world history and
philosophy of nonviolence drawn from the Bible, Thoreau, Niebuhr,
Gandhi, and others; the other portion would be focused on the practical,
dealing with role-playing, staging little ‘‘sociodramas’’ within which the
students would try-on the positions of demonstrator and antagonist; and
there were lessons on how to best protect their bodies during attacks (Lewis
interview). James Floyd (interview) described a ‘‘sociodrama.’’
Like I said, we role played. They would choose one of us from the group yand say
come up here, let me show you, here’s how we do it. One of the facilitators would say,
[N word]! And they’d push you, and they gave us an example of how to act.
James Murph (interview) described a workshop on marching protocol:
[the workshop leaders would] say now what we want you to do is when we leave the
church we want you in files of two, you’re not to be looking to the left or the right, just
look straight ahead. And even if the person beside you get hit, just don’t react, just keep
moving. Just keep moving, don’t talk back, don’t do any words that would cause any
kind of disturbances, just keep moving.
The curriculum of sociodramas expanded as the protestors returned from
live demonstrations to debrief at workshops. Angelina Butler (interview)
explained how the debriefings shaped a cumulative workshop curriculum of
increasingly violent sociodramas in the face of mounting live violence from
antagonists in downtown Nashville during early ‘‘test sits’’ in late 1959:
Students in Nashville were testing downtown area restaurants in small groups, going
back to the workshops, reporting what happened to them on the journey, reporting how
they felt about the interaction where the people had threw something at them on a
counter or put a cigarette butt out on their back, or whether a person spat on them for
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sitting at the counter. But [initially] the idea was not to get arrested, it was to go back to
the workshops when threatened with arrest and now let’s talk about what happened,
because that’s part of the training for preparedness of having a nonviolent
demonstration and movement. So we’d not only go back and talk about it, we would
then place ourselves in a position of pretending to be on the demonstration where now
people would do even worse things to you than had happened to you on the day that you
went downtown to practice yNow the problem is how do you feel, what’s your
reaction, this is how it’s going on.
At a personal level, the workshop experiences, even before the crucible of
actual confrontation with real antagonists, were profoundly transformative.
There is substantial evidence from social movement scholarship that direct
involvement in movement collective action (protests, confrontations, etc.)
can have both short- and long-term transformative influence on partici-
pants’ lives (e.g., Fendrich, 1993;McAdam, 1988). But seldom have scholars
found that schooling in preparation of actual insurgent involvement can be
as transformative as it was for Lawson’s workshop prote
´s. Curtis Murphy
(interview) knew that he was going through a major change when it was
happening. He moved from deep skepticism about nonviolence to then
accepting it as at least a strategy for social change and became a major
movement recruiter on the Tennessee A&I campus. Murphy described the
change in his attitude about nonviolence:
But the first meeting as I recall, I think there were 7 or 8 of us students there and Jim
[Lawson] started talking about this Mahatma Gandhi and this philosophy of
nonviolence. And I’m thinking that’s whacked, somebody hits me, I’m creaming them.
Nonviolence? No. That’s not even logical. I’m sitting there listening but I’m thinking this
doesn’t make sense. But obviously it’s something he said that stuck with me, and after
the next enough to get me to come back to the next meeting. Then the more I thought
about it, I said let me do a little research, that’s when I started to see there’s some merit
there. y. But my initial reaction was nonviolence? What are you, scared? You coward!
Only a coward would allow people to attack them and they don’t defend themselves. But
then the more I went to the meetings the more I began to learn from Jim and my
readings, I realize that it took a much braver person to practice nonviolence than one to
strike back.
The workshops also imparted the practical message of the futility of
violent resistance. The movement could never match the violence of their
antagonists, and the workshops stressed the importance of not fighting back
if only to protect fellow protestors from a violent reaction by antagonists.
This message partly informed Murphy’s (interview) acceptance of non-
violence as a ‘‘tool’’:
I began to see [nonviolence] as a very practical tool yI oftentimes would say to the
other participants, I am not a pacifist. I am not nonviolent. But when I am with you I am
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those things, because yI knew that I would never do anything that would hurt the
Learning to exercise self-restraint in the face of piercing insults was
especially challenging for workshop participants. Bernard Lafayette (inter-
view), for example, could endure physical pain more than emotional pain:
I got to these workshops in Nashville, the whole business of turning the other cheek and
that kind of thing, I thought about it, but it wasn’t my style, turning the other cheek. But
that wasn’t the issue for me. The more important issue for me was how would I feel after
someone had maybe slapped me or spat on me. My biggest struggle was internal. The
outside physical pain, I had endurance for that, and a great deal of tolerance for pain.
Joe Goldthreate (interview) explained that the workshops had helped him
to control his inclination to respond violently to deep insults and instilled in
him the message that the security of the group depended on his exercise of
self-restraint. The workshops prepared him for his eventual violent removal
from a lunch counter:
We went to the meetings and we started to learn how to be nonviolent, people knocking
you around yI could handle everything but spitting, the white guy walked by and spit
in my face, if you want to be a part of the program at that time, you couldn’t fight back.
You put everybody in jeopardy of getting hurt or killed. So I had to accept it if I wanted
to be a part yDon’t give them a reason to turn to violence. That was the number one
thing that was preaching. I guess when they knocked me out of the chair and spit on me
and drug me, I was prepared for that because I’d been trained day in and day out.
Diane Nash, also initially very skeptical, was transformed: ‘‘I found
beautiful things in people who would care enough about other people to
put their bodies between another person and danger’’ (Powledge, 1991,
p. 208). Jim Zwerg (interview) spoke of acquiring strength from others in
the group that changed him deeply, ‘‘an incredible, spiritual bond ywhat
Lawson used to call a soul force.’’ John Lewis recounts that once he
began attending those workshops ‘‘in the basement of Clark [Memorial
United Methodist Church] [they] became the focus of my life’’ (Lewis,
1998, p. 76). He described the experience as ‘‘the most exciting, and most
moving time as a student, as a young person’’ and attributes his loss of
shyness and leadership growth to the workshops and the sit-ins resulting
from them. It was here that ‘‘ yI discovered something about myself
that I didn’t know I had’’ (Lewis interview). Bernard Lafayette, too, found
the workshops to be a ‘‘life-changing experience’’ (Lafayette interview).
Novella Page (interview) spoke of gaining strength from her peers,
noting especially the courage and calm she observed in another young
woman, Diane Nash. She pointed to the group’s solidarity as a deep
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source of excitement. Lawson’s movement workshops took angry,
skeptical, shy, self-doubting young people and thoroughly resocialized
them into effective leaders and an effective fighting force. The workshops
worked, in the words of Lafayette (2008), to fundamentally ‘‘educate our
But did this personal transformation matter for the movement? The
participants felt strongly that it did. The leadership produced by the
workshops and their impact was crucial to the movement’s strength. Marion
Barry (interview) concluded that it was the leadership that made the
Nashville movement so unique. Jim Zwerg (interview) credits Lawson as the
key reason for the Nashville movement’s development and success. C.T.
Vivian (interview) also attributes the special place of the Nashville
movement – ‘‘producing more leaders than the rest of the movement
combined’’ – to the Lawson workshops. As John Lewis (interview) put it:
‘‘It is fair to say that more student leaders and more nonstudent leaders
emerged out of the Nashville movement than any other [local] movement.’’
They came through Nashville for a ‘‘period of training’’ [in movement
school] before they matriculated bringing the fight to Nashville, then across
the South.
As complex dialogically intense processes, the Lawson workshops were
many things. They were a place to confront self-doubt and fears; where
world history, philosophy, and practical tactics of nonviolent direct action
could be taught and practiced; where raw emotion would be channeled
and shaped; to cultivate many grassroots leaders; to create solidarity
among bright, determined cadre of young activists; to begin imagining and
working towards the utopic ‘‘beloved community’’; to build a clear
intentional design for assault on Nashville’s Jim Crow system, the beginning
of Lawson’s hope and inspiration for ‘‘making many Montgomerys.’’ At
root, the workshops were truly schools for the performing arts of nonviolent
protest and James Lawson was the headmaster, one who insisted not only
on nonviolence, but also the importance of organization, participatory
democracy in deliberation, and discipline.
The Nashville movement quickly emerged as the model local movement,
an exemplar of what could be done and how to do it. By May 1960 the
local movement had successfully desegregated the lunch counters of six
downtown stores. Dr. King had proclaimed the Nashville movement his
inspiration and shining example for the larger movement – ‘‘the best
organized and the most disciplined in the Southland’’ (quoted in Lewis,
1998, p. 111). By the end of 1962, many downtown commercial establish-
ments and public accommodations had been desegregated – a major blow to
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the local Jim Crow system and another crack in the edifice of white
supremacy throughout the South, two years before the landmark Civil
Rights Act of 1964. Lawson was being featured in movement literature for
his militant, forward-looking model of ‘‘nonviolent revolution’’ launched
by a growing ‘‘nonviolent army’’ (Lawson, 1961, pp. 2–3).
The impact of the Nashville cadre extended far beyond the city limits. The
movement that took organizational form in 1958 and then went into the
implementation of movement phase in February 1960 did not stop with
local accomplishments. The diffusion of Gandhian nonviolence from India
to Nashville spread to civil rights activities elsewhere in the American
South. Smith, Lawson, and other activists, by reinventing satyagraha in a
new cultural context, provided both physical and intellectual energy to
several derivative movements that emerged out of the Nashville campaign.
Just as they viewed the Montgomery bus boycott and King as inspira-
tional paradigms for the Nashville movement, these lessons were absorbed
and a new synthesis emerged in Nashville for others to adapt. The
Nashville campaign, by sharing its personnel and principles in other
southern settings, helped energize a dynamic diffusion. Trained by
Lawson, learning the Gandhian repertoire and earning their ‘‘movement
credentials’’ in Nashville, much of the core cadre went on to carry
knowledge and action of nonviolent oppositional culture across the South,
a key path of diffusion.
The first major step was the founding of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960 at Shaw University in
Raleigh, N.C. Most colleges sent one or two representatives. Sixteen came
from Nashville, including James Lawson, Diane Nash, John Lewis, James
Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and Marion Barry (Carson, 1981;Hogan, 2007).
Following Ella Baker’s sage advice, the young warriors formed their own
autonomous organization, related to but distinct from the church elders and
leadership of the SCLC. ‘‘The fiery Lawson, the young peoples’ Martin
Luther King, as some called him, received a standing ovation from the
students’’ when he addressed the group (Payne, 2007, p. 96). The SNCC
founding statement, drafted largely by Lawson, ‘‘affirmed the philosophy or
religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the
presupposition of our faith, and manner of action.’’ The Nashville group
played a key role in shaping the founding session. Others present noted the
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distinctiveness of the Nashville cadre – the disciplined commitment to
‘‘militant nonviolence’’ and emphasis on participatory democracy – marks
of the Nashville workshops, movement culture brought into the SNCC
(Hogan, 2007;Polletta, 2002). The Nashville group’s influence steered the
course of the SNCC for the first half of the Sixties. First national chairman
(1960–61), Marion Barry, and third chairman (1963–66), John Lewis, were
both core members of the Nashville cadre trained by Lawson. Situated
between these two, Charles McDew (1961–63) was quickly drawn to the
Nashville group as if he were a member of it. From inception to 1966, the
daring youth organization would be clearly stamped by the Nashville cadre
(cf., Hogan, 2007, pp. 34–38).
During the Nashville era of SNCC, the
organization also inspired the formation of and helped teach movement
culture to northern movements – the Students for Democratic Society (SDS)
and the Northern Student Movement (NSM) – and inspired the formation
of the largely white Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC)
founded in Nashville in 1964 (Hogan, 2007). Without the Nashville cadre, it
is uncertain whether there would have ever been a SNCC, the organization
that played a dynamic role as daring shock troops throughout the southern
struggle (Carson, 1981;Hogan, 2007;Payne, 2007).
The next major step in moving beyond Nashville came the following
spring. In May 1961, the first CORE-launched freedom ride, to test
southern compliance with recent federal law desegregating interstate bus
travel, met with white violence outside Anniston where one bus was fire-
bombed, and the other was attacked by a white mob in Montgomery.
Concerned about continuing violence and the safety of the riders, the
CORE leadership halted the rides. Because there had not been a significant
tactical innovation since the sit-in wave the previous year, the wider
movement could have easily come to a halt itself with the violence-induced
cancellation of the rides, a conclusion quickly drawn by the Nashville
group. As Diane Nash, who would assume the role of coordinator of the
Nashville-led freedom rides, put it: ‘‘The students [Nashville group] have
decided that we can’t let violence overcome. yIf they stop us with
violence, the movement is dead.’’
In short, the Nashville cadre picked up where CORE left off. They
traveled to Alabama and then continued the freedom ride, facing signi-
ficant danger throughout (see Arsenault, 2006). SNCC Mississippi
campaign veteran, Bob Moses, thought that ‘‘only the Nashville student
movement had the fire to match that of the burning bus’’ (quoted in
Hogan, 2007, p. 45). Historian Wesley Hogan’s (2007, p. 45) assessment is
on mark: ‘‘The difference between what had been accomplished in the
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Nashville sit-ins and the impromptu sit-ins that occurred across the South
now became vividly evident in the students’ response to white violence in
Alabama.’’ The organization, training, schooled discipline and commit-
ment – products of Lawson’s workshops – were, once again, contributing
powerfully to the continued flow of the overall movement. Conventional
approaches to modeling movement diffusion would miss this critical
heterogeneity, differences in the diffusion of the sit-in wave (Andrews &
Biggs, 2006), the freedom rides, and other forms of movement-related
collective action.
Undeterred by the brutal mob violence they faced in Montgomery, which
was now under martial law, the Nashville Freedom Riders resolved to
complete their mission by boarding a bus to Jackson, Mississippi, on May
24, 1961. The Alabama National Guard accompanied them in the bus to
the state line, leaving the Freedom Riders to enter Mississippi without
police or military protection on the bus. They arrived in Jackson without
incident, were instantly arrested as they desegregated the Jackson bus
station, jailed in the Hinds County prison in Jackson, refused bail and
refused to pay a $200 fine, and then transferred to the Hinds County prison
farm where they suffered horrid prison conditions for about two weeks. In
the middle of the night of June 15, they were abruptly transferred in a
windowless truck trailer to the gulag-like Parchman maximum-security state
penitentiary in a remote delta location some 100 miles northwest of Jackson,
where they served 60-day hard sentences (Lewis, 1998, pp. 154–172).
In Parchman, the Nashville Freedom Riders, who were now joined
by Freedom Riders from throughout the South and the nation, endured
racism of all sorts and the severe repressive measures of intimidation,
confinement, harsh physical conditions, water hosings, humiliation, and
mail censorship. Incarcerated two to a cell and segregated by race and
gender, the insurgents developed a repertoire of nonviolent resistance with
acts that reflected the constraints and possibilities afforded them by the
physical and social organization of their confinement (Lewis, 1998, pp. 168–
172). Nonviolent resistance entailed reading and reinterpreting prison-
provided bibles, communicating with Nashville activists in secret written
code, and singing spiritual and movement songs. The Nashville cadre
worked to convert the oppressive prison conditions to an ongoing
makeshift workshop on nonviolent struggle for less experienced among
them (Arsenault, 2006, p. 349;Nelson, 2011 documentary). When released
from Parchman, some stayed in Mississippi to do organizing, training,
and voter registration. Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel stayed in
Jackson, joined by Diane Nash, Catherine Burks, and Paul Brooks, while
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Marion Barry, Lester McKinnie, Charles Jones, and John Hardy worked
in the McComb and other regions of Mississippi (Hogan, 2007;Payne,
Through the remainder of the movement heyday and beyond, the
Nashville cadre were present in every flashpoint and city campaign driving
the movement forward. This roll call includes the Albany campaign of 1961–
62 – Charles Jones, Cordell Reagon, James Bevel, and Diane Nash
(Halberstam, 1998;Hogan, 2007, p. 67); the ‘‘Rock Hill Four’’ jailings
Diane Nash, Charles Jones (Hogan, 2007, pp. 51–52); the Birmingham
campaign (1963) – James Lawson and Diane Nash led nonviolent
workshops, and James Bevel was responsible for mobilizing the nonviolent
direct action through his ‘‘children’s campaign’’ that directly confronted
Bull Connor’s dogs, clubs, and fire hoses (Hogan, 2007, p. 242); the March
on Washington (1963) – John Lewis gave a speech as SNCC chair; Freedom
Summer campaign 1964 – James Lawson ran nonviolent workshops at the
boot-camp for the white volunteers in Oxford, Ohio, before they embarked
for Mississippi (Hogan, 2007, p. 162); the Selma campaign (1965) – John
Lewis, C.T. Vivian, James Bevel, and Bernard Lafayette, among others,
were engaged; and Memphis sanitation workers’ strike (1968) dovetailed
with Martin Luther King’s ‘‘Poor Peoples’ Campaign’’ – James Lawson,
now a Memphis pastor, was integral in bringing Dr. King to the city to
support the strikers. By the mid-1960s, members of the Nashville cadre were
also serving on the Executive Board of SCLC, including James Lawson,
C.T. Vivian, James Bevel, Diane Nash, and Bernard Lafayette.
Any one of these involvements would rank as significant movement
activity. But the overall record of the Nashville cadre stands out among all
the courageous actions by so many throughout the civil rights movement.
The ‘‘Greensboro Four’’ launched the famed sit-in on February 1, 1960, that
ignited a mass wave of student sit-ins across the South that spring. But
the movement engagement of those four was short lived in contrast to
the extended record of Nashville cadre. In historian Clayborne Carson’s
(1981, p. 16) words, ‘‘It was these Nashville activists, rather than the four
Greensboro students, who had an enduring impact on the subsequent
development of the southern movement.’’ Movement schools – the work-
shops – were the key for the Nashville cadre whose commitment kept them
traveling, carrying, using, and spreading the nonviolent praxis as they
challenged Jim Crow across the South. This was simultaneously the content,
the vehicle, and the impact of their diffusion process, one that was deeply
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Our most general goal has been to further illuminate one of the central
pathways through which nonviolent praxis diffused from India into the
southern civil rights movement. Building on social movement diffusion
scholarship in general and the diffusion of the Gandhian repertoire in
particular, our contribution centers the conceptual significance of biogra-
phical trajectories (including individual migration and movement of carriers
of oppositional culture through space), the role of movement schools, and
unique data consistent with demands of the dialogical model. These
theoretical and empirical strengths have allowed us to offer important
insights into the southern civil rights movement. We conclude by
elaborating the significance of these claims.
We begin with the theoretical contribution. We have contributed to the
dialogical model of diffusion. That perspective emphasizes the often
difficult interactive labor involved in the process of diffusing a complex
movement culture, like the Gandhian repertoire. In all phases – acquisition,
translation, experimentation, and application – people must invest time,
energy, emotion, and other resources in learning to understanding,
creatively modifying, teaching, and employing a foreign movement
repertoire in a different political-cultural setting. This often means painful
unlearning of prior knowledge, as was the case in the Nashville workshops,
a process that not all participants could successfully accomplish. We have
also shown that biographical trajectories are crucial for understanding the
carrier, teacher, and activist roles essential to the diffusion process of a
foreign movement culture. Movement of individual biographies and their
convergence in space is essential to fully developing the dialogical theory of
diffusion. Carriers of a novel movement culture cannot do much
individually with their new insights if they lack an appropriate platform
that allows for convergence with potentially interested others – social
spaces or environments that give the dialogical process a chance to unfold.
Our concept of movement schools fills this important gap in the dialogical
model. The School of Religion at Howard University and Lawson’s
workshops both operated as movement schools, but in quite different ways.
The intellectual ferment at Howard was central to the early learning –
awareness and translation – of the Gandhian repertoire. The Lawson
workshops had to focus on initial learning as well as implementation of
direct action praxis – an Americanized Gandhian repertoire – designed to
tear down Jim Crow and to move closer to the beloved community.
Nashville Workshops and Diffusion of Nonviolence 179
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Movement schools can take a variety of specific forms, but they are
frequently locations where the most intense emotional dialogue and creative
labor take place. We believe the concept is an essential addition to the
dialogical perspective on movement diffusion.
Second, our study makes a methodological-empirical contribution to the
dialogical perspective. Because the dialogical approach emphasizes the role
of in-depth face-to-face interaction during the travails of translation,
experimentation, and application of novel movement culture, it makes
strong data demands. Ethnographic data, detailed documents recording
such schooling sessions (e.g., film), and/or in-depth interviews with those
having experience in such movement schools are necessary if we are to get
the most from and continue to develop the dialogical diffusion perspective.
Our detailed interviews with many of the Nashville cadre fit this requirement
Finally, our analysis contributes to knowledge of the southern civil rights
movement – how nonviolent oppositional culture diffused through two
main paths and the role of movement schools in the process.
We have
illuminated the formation of the Nashville movement center (building on
Morris, 1984) but have gone beyond previous research by highlighting the
inner workings of an important movement school, the Lawson workshops.
We have shown how the Gandhian repertoire diffused to Nashville through
key players and how it was dialogically labored over in the workshops,
how students in those workshops gravitated to Lawson, struggled with the
ideas he presented, put those ideas into action, and in the process trans-
formed the ideas as well as themselves, and helped transform American
The Nashville movement school was distinctive because of the (a)
powerful and committed mentorship of James Lawson, (b) organic form-
ation and employment of participatory democratic culture, (c) local
embeddedness in and support from Nashville’s black student and com-
munity leaderships, and (d) regularity and duration of the workshops. The
workshops were centerpiece schools of the southern movement – the most
well-organized, most continuously functioning, and the most well-taught.
Consequently, they produced a highly successful local movement – an
exemplar for the wider southern struggle – and the largest number of highly
disciplined and committed nonviolent leader-activists and teachers of any
local movement in the struggle. They carried (diffused) the fight using an
Americanized Gandhian repertoire throughout the South. The success of the
southern civil rights movement was due, in no small part, to the movement
school in Nashville.
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1. By ‘‘praxis’’ we mean a philosophy (of engagement or action) and the action
2. We use the term ‘‘Gandhian repertoire’’ to signify the essential elements (not
the entire culturally specific features of Gandhi’s praxis) that were eventually
adapted by the US southern civil rights movement. These include an alternative
conceptualization of ‘‘power’’ based on three principles: (1) respect for one’s
opponents as persons, (2) refusal to cooperate with unjust power, and (3) the struggle
to create alternative systems of power through nonviolent direct action (see Kurtz,
2008, p. 840; 2012). ‘‘Nonviolent direct action’’ is social action directed at chang-
ing evil/oppressive/unjust social arrangements by directly confronting/resisting/
challenging and not cooperating with such arrangements through nonviolent means,
which includes suffering violence at the hands of the opposition but never retaliating
with violence (see Sharp, 2010, Appendix One, for a lengthy inventory of specific
forms of nonviolent direct action). This action is rooted in the tradition of civil
disobedience that deliberately violates unjust social arrangements for purposes of
expressing a moral and political message. The creativity of the Gandhian repertoire
is that it offers a new paradigm for social change predicated on the synthesis of two
traditional, yet orthogonal, perspectives – violent warfare and pacifism. The
Gandhian nonviolent activist ‘‘fights like the warrior but avoids harming like the
pacifist’’ (Kurtz, 2008, p. 840; 2012).
3. James M. Lawson, Jr. was a participant-observer in the Nashville movement
and the broader southern civil rights movement. He was also a key informant and
interviewee in our project as well as a co-author of this chapter. While he provided
crucial information, our characterization of the importance of his participa-
tion comes from testimony of other participants who we interviewed, not his own
4. For example, Marion Barry (interview), Bernard Lafayette (interview), Charles
Murphy (interview), Diane Nash (Powledge, 1991, p. 208), and Jim Zwerg
(interview) all admitted to this initial difficulty.
5. In 1961, SNCC formed a five-person executive committee, three of whom were
drawn from the Nashville cadre – James Bevel, Diane Nash, and Charles Jones – in
addition to McDew and Moses (Hogan, 2007, p. 65).
6. Nash quoted in Arsenault (2006, p. 184). Not only did the Nashville cadre
contribute significantly to maintaining overall movement momentum (Arsenault,
2006;Hogan, 2007), but those connected to the Nashville movement supplied more
freedom riders than any other city and launched more intercity freedom rides
(Arsenault, 2006, Appendix).
7. Diffusion was assisted by mass media coverage of protest events, like the sit-ins,
once they began to unfold in February 1960 (Andrews & Biggs, 2006). However,
prior diffusion processes set the stage for the rapid take-off of the sit-ins: During the
second half of the 1950s, the South had been ‘‘seeded’’ for the adoption of the sit-ins
once they emerged in other locations, like Greensboro. That seeding came from
several sources: (1) The diffusion of information about local successes in places like
Montgomery (1955–56) and Tallahassee (1956) had been spreading by word of
mouth; (2) movement culture was spreading through literature; FOR wrote,
Nashville Workshops and Diffusion of Nonviolence 181
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the Montgomery Story’’ – that was considered a subversive and exciting source of
information, especially among young black students (see Isaac, 2008;Lewis, 1998,
pp. 74–5) and Dr. King wrote Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1957)
documenting the key lessons of that campaign; and (3) there were traveling
movement evangelists, like FOR field representatives Glenn Smiley and James M.
Lawson, Jr., who performed nonviolent workshops across the South during the late
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... These programs and organizations bring together contemplative, religious, and secular practices with prefigurative politics, strategies, and repertoires of collective mobilization at the local, national, and international levels. Examples of such social movement schools range from the Nashville workshops during the civil rights movement, which incorporated varied spiritual and religious content, to mindful intervention programs across institutions that seek to bring new forms of consciousness, practices, and values into schools and secular professional workplaces (Isaac et al. 2012;Isaac et al. 2020). ...
... This may occur through deepening personal moral and group commitments through individual or shared practices, or mainly through exposure to a greater number of groups, which provide more social support and social capital. Long-standing research documents how spiritual and religious practices, communities, and beliefs have played key roles in the civil rights movement and other forms of local civic and political engagement (Isaac et al. 2012;Morris 1986;Pattillo-McCoy 1998). Based on this body of literature, we predict the following: ...
... We hypothesize that civic and political engagement tied to spiritual practice likely will occur through similar mechanisms that have been documented in religious communities' mobilization efforts, such as developing a shared culture of civic values and mobilization repertoires, a sense of community, and social connection. An emerging literature on spiritual activism demonstrates how spiritual practices can be a central element of building political or activist communities, used during protest, or practiced in response to political confrontations (Isaac et al. 2012;Isaac et al. 2020;Sauerborn forthcoming). Spiritual communities can also be mobilized to collectively pursue broader social and political changes (see note 4). ...
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Churches have long been sites of local charity work as well as national political movements. What happens when people engage in more individualistic forms of spirituality, like mindfulness meditation or yoga, rather than participate in religious communities? Might the rise of individualized forms of spirituality lead to a decline in political engagement? Or, among people averse to religion, might spiritual practice operate as a substitute, and potentially contribute to political engagement? Drawing on burgeoning theory of religion and spirituality as socially-situated boundary objects, we use data from the 2020 National Religion and Spirituality Survey to examine the relationship between self-reported spiritual and religious practices and political engagement. First, we investigate whether study participants distinguish spiritual and religious practice as distinct concepts through factor analysis. Next, we use those results to examine the association between these practices and reports of political behavior. We find a consistent, positive relationship between spiritual practice and political engagement of comparable magnitude to that of religious practices. Notably, during an era of heightened political polarization around religious engagement, political progressives, respondents of color, and members of the LGBT community are more likely to report spiritual rather than religious practices. This points us to a theory of spiritual practice as a substitute for religious engagement among groups alienated from religious institutions, with the former capable of fostering similar proclivities for political action as the latter. Our results suggest critiques of a “selfish” spirituality have been overblown.
... It was, however, more than an exemplary citywide movement that achieved local results. By design, the Nashville movement was the chief vehicle for developing, diffusing, and training activists (e.g., Freedom Riders) in the nonviolence praxis adopted in 1957 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for deployment in the Southwide movement (Cornfield et al. 2019;Halberstam 1998;Isaac 2019;Isaac et al. 2012Isaac et al. , 2016Isaac et al. , 2020. ...
... Accounting for the challenges of intergenerational mobilization, and thus accounting for the involvement of students in a movement planned by more senior adults, is an important task because the students were the youngest generation of Nashville-based activists who went on to diffuse nonviolence praxis throughout the South. Students emerging out of the Nashville civil rights movement were among the founders and early leaders of SNCC in 1960; were responsible for continuing a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)-launched Freedom Ride that had been halted in Alabama in 1961; and played a part in the Albany campaign of 1961-62, the Birmingham campaign of 1963, the March on Washington in 1963, the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, the Selma campaign of 1965, the Chicago campaign in 1966, and the Memphis sanitation workers' strike of 1968 (Cornfield et al. 2019;Finley et al. 2016;Isaac 2019;Isaac et al. 2012Isaac et al. , 2016Isaac et al. , 2020. Martin Luther King Jr. said the Nashville movement represented "the best organized and the most disciplined in the Southland" (qtd. in Lewis 1998: 111), and historian Clayborne Carson (1981: 16) wrote, "[i]t was these Nashville activists, rather than the four Greensboro students, who had an enduring impact on the subsequent development of the southern movement." ...
... This generation of intellectual-activists adhered to Gandhian nonviolence and/or pacifism and developed and applied these ideologies to the pursuit of racial justice in Europe and the United States. Some of them directly mentored and collaborated with Lawson during the 1940s and 1950s, including A. J. Muste, Glen Smiley, and Bishop Matthew W. Clair Jr., while others produced scholarly works linking Gandhian nonviolence, pacifism, prophetic Christian theology, and the pursuit of racial justice in the United States (Isaac et al. 2012). A cluster of Black religious intellectuals at the School of Religion at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s and 1940s focused on training, according to Dean Benjamin E. Mays, "an insurgent Negro professional clergy." ...
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The 1960s-era, Nashville nonviolent civil rights movement-with its iconic lunch counter sit-ins-was not only an exemplary local movement that dismantled Jim Crow in downtown public accommodations. It was by design the chief vehicle for the intergenerational mentoring and training of activists that led to a dialogical diffusion of nonviolence praxis throughout the Southern civil rights movement of this period. In this article, we empirically derive from oral-history interviews with activists and archival sources a new "intergenerational model of movement mobilization" and assess its contextual and bridge-leading sustaining factors. After reviewing the literatures on dialogical diffusion and bridge building in social movements, we describe the model and its sustaining conditions historical , demographic, and spatial conditions-and conclude by presenting a research agenda on the sustainability and generalizability of the Nashville model.
... Roberto recalls that some organisations, educational institutions and groups of victims began to request MPJD participants to give them training courses on human rights, which is why he began offering workshops in various states. The significance of these spaces in the acquisition of skills is discussed in the next chapter, but in terms of cultural outcomes it should be noted that these types of courses have been key to diffusion in several contexts because they help to bridge groups and disseminate information (Isaac et al. 2012). "It was extremely important to share what we knew and bring the victims closer to other people […] so that they could take control of their cases […] with confidence […], identifying exactly where they wanted to go", Roberto says (interview). ...
... Although he gets paid for organising this, the victims' relatives attend for free. Pietro and Roberto do not plan these courses jointly, but I maintain that both initiatives can be considered as a form of linked movement schools (Isaac et al. 2012), forums where the participants have the possibility of resocialising knowledge and acquiring new skills while also linking to each other. ...
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In 2006, then Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared a ‘war’ against criminal organisations that were beginning to control some of the country’s territories. Consequently, the number of murders and disappearances of people began to increase steadily by tens of thousands. Far from acknowledging the errors of the strategy, the authorities constantly criminalised the victims and denied the tragic consequences of the use of the military against drug cartels. After the murder of his son on 28 March 2011, the poet Javier Sicilia started leading mobilisations in the state of Morelos to protest the violence. In just a few days, the actions expanded to virtually all regions of the country embracing relatives of victims, activists and organisations of very different backgrounds, forming the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD). This thesis comprises an in-depth case study of the MPJD. After providing an overview of the context in which the mobilisations started and my research methods, I develop thematic chapters. In the first one, I analyse the recruitment dynamics of the MPJD. These pages contribute to the literature by advancing the understanding of how people without prior political experience or links to a mobilised group join and participate in protest. This, moreover, helps in refining rather than reifying the function of social networks. The second chapter explains the upward scale-shift process of mobilisation and the response given by the government through the analysis of coalition building, framing and counter-framing. The results of the analysis help to specify the conditions that facilitate not only the development of alliances, but also those that lead to their accelerated breakdown. Regarding framing, the work contributes to understanding which attributes facilitate resonance and alignment amongst audiences with contrasting characteristics. Furthermore, the discussion around counter-framing highlights how official responses influence the discursive processes of contentious actors, whose opportunities are not the same in ‘the streets’ and in official spaces. Next, the third chapter examines the type of social ties formed through the involvement in the contentious performances led by the relatives of victims of extreme violence. Bringing together the literature on social movements and a body of Latin American research on “emotional communities”, I argue that the MPJD fostered a political-emotional community in which the public narration of suffering made victims and non-victims coalesce to demand justice collectively. Overall, this chapter advances our understanding of the dynamics through which allies that are not directly aggrieved by extreme violence develop a sense of community with the victims. Likewise, it develops four empirical dimensions for the analysis of political-emotional communities: the role of testimonios (testimonial narratives), the ethics developed during contention, the fluctuations in participation, and the costs and risks involved in the mobilisations. The last two chapters focus on the outcomes of the MPJD. The fourth one encompasses the political and cultural outcomes contributing to the literature in two ways: First, by discussing how achievements in the policy process can demobilise some groups but mobilise others; and second, by explaining how the spillover of a contentious actor can consolidate a social movement community in an emergent contentious field. Finally, the fifth chapter analyses the biographical consequences of participation in victim-led mobilisations. These pages provide an account of how the lives of the participants have been influenced due to their involvement in contention. This chapter advances the understanding of the interplay between social relations and cognitions that lead participants to modify their worldviews. In an academic sense, this thesis introduces a series of thematic chapters that provide empirical evidence to refine several areas of the theory to better understand various processes related to social mobilisation. Regarding the importance that this thesis can have for the activists and the families of the victims, my work is, first, a systematisation of their campaigns and experiences; second, an acknowledgement of the transcendence of the actions that they have been carrying out sustainedly during a decade; and third, this research is a space for memory, so that their names and those of their relatives are not forgotten, so that the demand for justice does not end.
... This includes deliberate (emotion) programmes and their curricula. For example, Isaac et al. (2012; reveal how various movements use programmes and deliberate curricula to prepare, train, and motivate their activists for social engagement. Such programmes can explicitly target emotional training. ...
The environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) not only uses civil disobedience for its radical protests against climate change, but it also employs narratives and practices of mindfulness. Internal guidelines include numerous standardised and mindfulness-based emotional precepts and techniques that promote the well-being of individuals for the purpose of sustainable coexistence. While sociological critiques of mindfulness have primarily condemned its tendency to depoliticise, privatise, and heighten individual responsibility, XR’s novel politicised reception raises numerous questions. Using a qualitative analysis of public documents and the regulations of the movement, this article examines the extent to which mindfulness, which has been criticised for its individualist disposition, can be deployed in a political context. This analysis sheds light on the often conflicting consequences for XR and mindfulness itself. Building on this, the article then explores how institutionalised emotion programmes can work in a decentralised movement to establish order.
Nonviolence is an evolving theory and practice of empowerment committed to social equality and justice that attempts to minimize violence in everyday life and promote social change. Nonviolence may entail holistic approaches aimed at all forms of violence, including direct, structural, ecological, and cultural (symbolic and epistemic), or it may apply specifically to engaging in conflict without resorting to violence.
Recent scholarship has focused on the vital role of social movement organizations as key pathways into activism. Yet attention to how learning unfolds within social movement organizations has not been adequately studied. Informed by critical learning sciences, we investigated Kokua Hawaii, a social movement organization that catalyzed a near half century of grassroots activism throughout Hawaiʻi and the Pacific. We argue that Kokua Hawaii offered a space for activists to: (1) conceptualize eviction as a symptom of colonialism and capitalism, (2) open themselves to Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) epistemologies and lifeways, (3) participate in shared labor and collective care, and (4) author affirming and purposeful activist identities. Data includes 34 publicly available oral history interviews with members of Kokua Hawaii. We conclude by reflecting on our scholarly responsibilities to past, present, and future social movements.
Universities teach students about social problems but provide few concrete tools for acting to promote social change. Teaching about challenges but not about possible solutions can be potentially disempowering and may reduce civic agency. This chapter discusses the development of a required class on community organizing and civil resistance that provides students with specific strategies for engaging in collective action. The author explores a range of tensions involved in teaching this class: making it experiential without forcing students to work on issues or take steps they might not agree with, providing multiple traditions of social action so they do not get the sense that there is one “right” way, working with students whose perspectives might differ from ones he sees as legitimate, and teaching a class that some outside the institution might see as beyond the purview of a university. Ultimately, he argues that it is incumbent upon universities to provide concrete skills for social action, because failing to do so restricts their capacity to become effective civic actors in our democracy.
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This special issue of the Journal marks a moment in a journey by a group of collaborators exploring the implications of an emerging concept with profound relevance to twenty-first century struggles for social justice. To understand the nature and purpose of this journey, it will help to know a little about the process that led us here. Before considering this process, however, it is important to note that the collection of essays in this journal represents only a small number of voices offering contributions at only one moment in a wider ongoing conversation....
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On February 21, 1936, after traveling for nearly six months, Dr. Howard Thurman and his delegation finally arrived in Bardoli for a meeting with Gandhi. They exchanged warm greetings with the Indian leader and sat down on the floor of a large tent. Then Gandhi started asking Thurman (accompanied by his wife Sue, Edward Carroll, and Phenola Carroll) a series of probing questions about the experiences and social conditions of African Americans in their home country. Thurman (1979: 132) later wrote in his autobiography, “He wanted to know about voting rights, lynching, discrimination, public school education, the churches and how they functioned. His questions covered the entire sweep of our experience in American society.” After several hours of intense discussion, Thurman and the others finally had a chance to ask Gandhi some burning questions: Thurman: Is non-violence from your point of view a form of direct action?. Gandhi: It is not one form, it is the only form.…It is the greatest and the activest force in the world. One cannot be passively non-violent.…It is a force which is more positive than electricity and more powerful than even ether. At the center of non-violence is a force which is self-acting.…. Thurman: Forgive the weakness, but may I ask how are we to train individuals or communities in this difficult art?. Gandhi: There is no royal road, except through living the creed in your life which must be a living sermon. Of course the expression in one’s own life presupposes great study, tremendous perseverance, and thorough cleansing of one’s self of all the impurities. […]
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Whereas conventional wisdom assumes that power grows out of the barrel of a gun, or is given to those who steer a course down the mainstream, Gandhi's success lies in not accepting dominant paradigms but in challenging them. Gandhi synthesizes the two contradictory teachings in the world's religious and ethical traditions about violence in the nonviolent activist who fights like a warrior but - like the pacifist - avoids harming others. This article reviews the history and basic tenets of Gandhian nonviolence and examines its impact in various spheres from the Indian Freedom Movement to anticolonial, civil rights, and human rights movements. Finally, we briefly examine the implications of Gandhian thought for social theory.
The history of the Peace Pledge Union of Britain illuminates the process of social movement repertoire diffusion. In the late 1950s and 1960s British pacifists successfully used nonviolent direct action, but this was based upon a long-term engagement with Gandhism. Systematic coding of movement literature suggests that the translation of Gandhian methods involved more than twenty years of intellectual study and debate. Rival versions of Gandhian repertoire were constructed and defended. These were embedded in practical, sometimes competing projects within the pacifist movement, and were the subject of intense argument and conflict, the relevance of Gandhism was established through complex framing processes, multiple discourses, and increasing practical experimentation. This article offers methodological and conceptual tools for the study of diffusion. A wider argument for the importance of the reception as will as performance of contention is offered.
Fifty years ago African Americans were severely oppressed. Not only were they unable to enjoy many of the basic citizenship rights guaranteed by the US Constitution but also, under Jim Crow, blacks were denied the franchise, barred from interacting with whites in public spaces, and trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder, where they were relegated to the poorest paying and least desirable jobs. The modern civil rights movement, a major social force in the mid-1950s, was the vehicle through which African Americans and their supporters overthrew Jim Crow. Partly as a response to this groundbreaking movement, scholars have constructed a new concept of social movements where organization, strategic thinking, cultural traditions, and political encounters figure largely as explanatory factors in analyses of social movements.
McAdam and Rucht (1993) have recently bemoaned the neglect of diffusion processes in the study of social movements. Clearly there has been work that bears on aspects of diffusion among social movements (Oberschall 1995). But McAdam and Rucht are correct in noting that research and theorization aimed at ferreting out the links among social movements and ‘the dynamics by which they are forged’ (1993: 73) pales in comparison to interest in the emergence of discrete social movements and the factors accounting for constituent participation.
It is widely recognized that social movements may spread – or “diffuse” – from one site to another. Such diffusion, however, is a complex and multidimensional process that involves different actors, networks, and mechanisms. This complexity has spawned a large body of literature on different aspects of the diffusion process, yet a comprehensive framework remains an elusive target. This book is a response to that need, and its framework focuses on three basic analytical questions. First, what is being diffused? This question directs attention to both the protest repertoires and interpretive frames that actors construct to define issues and mobilize political claims. Second, how does diffusion occur? This book focuses attention on the activist networks and communication channels that facilitate diffusion, including dialogue, rumors, the mass media, the internet, NGOs, and organizational brokers. Finally, what is the impact of diffusion on organizational development and shifts in the scale of contentious politics? This volume suggests that diffusion is not a simple matter of political contagion or imitation; rather, it is a creative and strategic process marked by political learning, adaptation, and innovation.