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Ellen’s Review Corner: This Is an Uprising

Ellen’s Corner: This Is an Uprising

The winds roared out of the Adirondacks, across Lake Champlain, and into the north woods that surround my cottage in the mountains of Vermont. Darkness had fallen quickly, snow pelted the windows, and the sturdy little cottage shook. 

I stepped over the dog and added a log to the fire. It was the perfect night to curl up in my reading chair with a good book. And that’s what I planned to do.

On the table next to my chair was This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, which had just been delivered from the publisher that afternoon. I picked it up, and within minutes I was engrossed in the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his inner circle of advisors as they arrived at the Dorchester retreat center near Savannah in 1963. They were there to analyze why their recent efforts to end segregation had failed—and launch the single most important strategy of the civil rights movement.

“The mood was somber,” report Mark and Paul Engler, authors of Uprising. For a year, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SNLC) had organized a series of civil rights demonstrations around Albany, Georgia, a small city tucked in the southwestern corner of the state. More than 2,000 people had been arrested. But instead of focusing on the reasons all these upstanding, law-abiding people had taken to the streets—to desegregate Birmingham’s downtown business district and ignite a national discussion on segregation—both local and national media instead focused on, as the New York Times reported, “the deft handling by the police of racial protests”.

The demonstrations had been a failure, the organizers agreed. Birmingham’s business district was still lily white and the only national discussion was about what a great job the Birmingham police were doing.

King felt the failure deeply. That night at the Dorchester, King, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, Andrew Young, and Wyatt Tee Walker reviewed SNLC’s strategy and looked closely at alternatives. Eventually, the group moved toward a strategy that would one day become known among community organizers around the world as “the Birmingham Model.” It would include the economic pressure against merchants that had been used during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the lunch-counter sit-ins of Nashville, and the pack-the-jails strategy of Albany. And it would rest, in every instance, on a foundation of nonviolent confrontation.

At the time, there was doubt among those working for social change throughout the world that Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent approach could be successfully used in countries outside his own.

But, under King’s leadership, the strategy worked. Citing the work of historian Michael Kazin, Uprising authors Mark and Paul Engler report that six weeks after the Dorchester meeting, “…the scenes of police dogs snapping at unarmed demonstrators and water cannons being opened on student marchers `convinced a plurality of whites, for the first time, to support the cause of black freedom.’” In the next 10 weeks, report the Englers, 750 civil rights demonstrations took place in 186 American cities, and led to almost 15,000 arrests. And it was no coincidence, they suggest, that less than 18 months after the new SCLS strategy was launched, President Lyndon Johnson signed the paradigm-changing Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Both here in the United States and around the world, many of those seeking social transformation began to consciously adopt nonviolent confrontation including, more recently, multiple versions of Occupy, 350.org, and #BlackLivesMatter. All have been built on the foundation of nonviolent confrontation or incorporated it into their basic strategy, the Englers argue, and with significant success. According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s groundbreaking studies of social transformation, social change movements that challenged undemocratic regimes during the past century, for example, have been 20 percent more likely to succeed using nonviolent confrontation than movements that used violence.

Two hundred and fifty pages later, I came up for air. The wind had died down, the fire needed tending, and I could use a cup of tea.

But as I put the water on to boil, I thought about the sheer number of voices and nonviolent tactics for social change that the Englers had drawn together. Through interviews, historical research into the dynamics of nonviolent conflict, and an analysis of such legendary theoreticians and social change agents as Gandhi, Gene Sharp (How to Start a Revolution), Saul Alinsky (Rules for Radicals), Frances Fox Piven (Challenging Authority), and Quaker activist George Lakey, they argue, persuasively, that distinct periods of continuous, well-planned but seemingly spontaneous mass demonstrations—“uprisings”—that use nonviolent confrontation have changed the world. And they have done it with such passion, intensity, and page-turning storytelling, that I had barely been able to put the book down.

Mark is a writer based in Philadelphia and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy, while his brother Paul is an organizer—immigrant rights, global justice, labor—and founding director of the Los Angles-based Center for the Working Poor. Together, they have given us a highly readable analysis of how Friends' commitment to  social change can change the world.

Ellen Michaud is the editor-at-large for Live Happy Magazine, and the author of Blessed: Living a Grateful Life, which was named the #1 spiritual/inspirational book of the year by USA BookNews. She is also an alumna of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer, a past writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion and the former book review editor of Friends Journal.

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