Nonviolence Before King
The Politics of Being and the Black Freedom Struggle
Series: Justice, Power, and Politics
- ISBN: 9781469663005
- Published By: University of North Carolina Press
- Published: June 2021
In Nonviolence Before King: The Politics of Being and the Black Freedom Struggle, Anthony Siracusa makes an important contribution to our understanding of the Black struggle for human rights and societal transformation. The major theoretical intervention of the work is what Siracusa names the “politics of being,” which unites the figures in this study and could be applied more broadly to freedom struggles in the past and present. He succinctly defines the politics of being as “a method to bring forth the world as it should be by demonstrating the world as though it were so” (105). In other words, the politics of being are a nonviolent, powerful method of transforming our society by demonstrating an alternative way of living in the midst of our violent, racist, and sexist world. Siracusa ties the implementation of the politics of being primarily to Lawson and argues that it was Lawson, rather than Martin Luther King Jr., who was the “most important figure in the development and diffusion of nonviolent direct action in the Black freedom movement in the years immediately before and after the sit-in revolution of 1960” (151). This focus on Lawson rightly highlights his importance to the movement and fleshes out a period of the civil rights movement that is often overlooked, namely the period between the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the beginning of the Birmingham campaign.
Siracusa begins his account with the FOR and their pacifist campaigns in the early 20th century. Here he introduces a distinction that is important throughout the work, one between pacifism and nonviolence (or nonviolent direct action). “The color of pacifism was white,” Siracusa notes, “and with armed self-defense a survival imperative for most Black Americans, the lily-white and rigidly pacifist FOR struggled to take root in southern soil” (47). While Thurman rejected the “mere quietus” of white pacifism, he did recognize the “genius” of pacifism, namely the rejection of hierarchical racial thinking and the “complete abandonment of violence toward another” (64). Building on this from within the FOR, Thurman theorized nonviolence, developing what would become the politics of being. The politics of being are—“an immediate claim to be free” by Black people in America in the midst of a society that did and arguably does not recognize their humanity (8). It requires personal transformation of its adherents, who aim to perform the world that ought to be and thereby bring that world into existence. For Thurman, the goal of nonviolence, i.e. the politics of being, was not merely a change in law, or a transformation of the other, but the creation of “a new society entirely, one built wholly on reverence for human personality” (74).
The narrative then turns to Pauli Murray and Bayard Rustin, who participated in and built upon the politics of being developed by Thurman. Murray, along with other students at Howard University, organized one of the earliest nonviolent campaigns in America, working to desegregate businesses in Washington, D.C. Murray drew on the “power of the spirit” to refuse segregation and its accompanying dehumanization (110). She was one of the earliest activists to live out Thurman’s politics of being and further extended the fight against “Jane Crow.” Rustin, drawing on his Quaker heritage, sought to develop the fullness of his personality, as well as the personalities of those around him, to bring about a “fundamental revolution in U.S. society” (133). According to Siracusa, beyond Rustin’s organizing acumen, what made him especially important to the movement was his cultivation of “a deeper vision of nonviolence by exploring the relationship between the structures of society and human behavior” (133).
However, in Siracusa’s telling, Lawson is Thurman’s most prominent disciple. Lawson added philosophical depth to the movement, drawing on his years studying nonviolence in India, and was the first and most successful evangelist of nonviolence in the South, especially to Black audiences (155). Drawing on Thurman and his own experiences, Lawson also articulated the need for “strategic suffering,” which was a willingness to suffer violence oneself in order to demonstrate the weakness of the ethics undergirding Jim Crow (161). Lawson offered Black people a stark choice, either continue to endure your own inferiority by cooperating with Jim Crow, or “claim the freedom to be by refusing to cooperate with segregation” (163). Importantly, for Lawson the use of violence ultimately bolstered the logic of segregation and white supremacy rather than working to undermine them. Lawson, then, is a key figure in the theorization and implementation of nonviolence as a way of life, which is to say, as a politics of being that seeks to transform this world into a new one by demonstrating the world that should be.
Siracusa’s argument is compelling, and his work on Lawson in particular is a major contribution that elucidates Lawson’s role in and importance to the freedom movement. However, Siracusa is somewhat unwilling to wrestle with the potential shortcomings of the politics of being. In the epilogue to the text, Siracusa compares Stokely Carmichael to Lawson. Carmichael is said to “have practiced nonviolence” but not embodied it as a way of life, whereas “Lawson was committed to the idea that nonviolent ways of being were the source of profound power” (180, emphasis original). Siracusa argues that this difference between the two explains why Carmichael abandoned nonviolence, and more broadly explains why the Black freedom struggle moved away from nonviolence and toward Black Power. That is, Carmichael and advocates of Black Power practiced but did not embrace the politics of being as a way of life and thereby did not experience its full power like Lawson. Though Siracusa names the fact that many who practiced nonviolence were “deeply traumatized” or harmed through their experience, the reader could be forgiven for walking away from this text with the belief that if Carmichael and others had the commitment and belief of Lawson, their trauma and harm could have been avoided. A blunter assessment of the politics of being may suggest that its practitioners are at a real risk of being physically and emotionally damaged, rather than having the opportunity to live out the fullness of their being, regardless of their level of commitment to the politics of being. Despite this concern, Siracusa’s monograph represents a decisive contribution to our understanding of the Black freedom movement. Additionally, his theorization of the politics of being stands to benefit multiple fields, including but not limited to philosophy, theology, and peace studies.
David C. Justice is a doctoral candidate in Christian theology at Saint Louis University and master’s student in religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.David C. JusticeDate Of Review:May 20, 2022