Action is key to success of nonviolent protest, panelist says

Monday, June 12, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — To the Rev. C.T. Vivian, words mean very little until they’re put into action.

As a religious and civil rights leader in the 1960s, he helped teach local activists the nonviolent principles that guided the fight for equal rights for blacks in Nashville. But, to him, these teachings did not achieve their full power until they were acted upon.

“This is the thing about nonviolence, until there’s action nobody can understand it. … Everything comes [serendipitously] up out of the action. That’s the power of nonviolence.”

Vivian spoke last week to a crowd gathered at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University for a panel discussion and screening of the PBS documentary “A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict.”

The film examines several nonviolent movements in the 20th century, including Nashville’s sit-in movement in the 1960s, Mohandas Gandhi’s fight for the rights of Indian laborers in the early 1900s and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa in the 1980s.

Jack DuVall, the film’s executive producer, joined Vivian for the June 9 screening and discussion.

“Our purpose with creating this television series and this film was to tell the story of the development of nonviolent power throughout the world throughout the 20th century,” DuVall said. The filmmakers, he said, wanted to provide “in a sense an alternate history of the 20th century — how to take power without using violence, which, in fact, was the most successful form of taking power in the 20th century.”

Vivian and the other leaders of the civil rights movement in Nashville recognized the potential for nonviolence to affect drastic change.

“We saw very clearly that if it (the movement) happened violently then we (blacks and whites) would be hating each other for the next three or four generations,” Vivian said. “If we could make this happen nonviolently, (we knew that) we could change things.”

Joining Vivian and DuVall were panelist Betty Nixon, whose father owned a segregated restaurant in Nashville in the 1960s, and moderator John Seigenthaler, who was city editor at The Tennessean during the Nashville sit-ins.

The news media, the panelists said, were key to the success of the nonviolent movement in Nashville.

“The role the media played, primarily the print media, in the Nashville struggle was enormously important because the news of the action itself had to reach the whole community for attitudes to shift,” DuVall said.

One “thing that the media did was to break the silence,” Nixon said. Before the civil rights movement in Nashville was reported by the news media, racism was a “secret problem” that white society did not discuss, she said.

The news media even played an important role in nonviolent struggles in countries where there wasn’t a free press, DuVall said.

“Through information a movement can be organized, can be mobilized,” he said. “When the press wasn’t free what the movement would do was to invent an underground press [and] invent ways to disseminate information, sometimes at great risk to life and limb,” he said.

It is only when information is disseminated that change can occur, Nixon said.

“Once it’s a story every day … then people have to start talking about it. And that’s when you start getting a solution.”

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