The History of Nonviolent Protest

by Alex Mette

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
– Martin Luther King Jr., December 11, 1964

The following story comes from a book by Scott Sanders: Antioch: An Episode in History, it can be viewed along with many others, in their entirety, at the Olive Kettering Library.

In 1964 George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the German-American Bund, a “homegrown version of the National Socialist German Workers Party, the Nazis” came to Antioch College to give a speech.  Rockwell was invited by CG who had sent out numerous letters to potential speakers for that Fall; Rockwell was the first to accept.  Arriving in Yellow Springs and speaking to a packed Kelly Hall he praised Antioch for its willingness to go to jail for its beliefs and the way that students fight.  One way that Antioch students fight apparently is with silence.  For the duration of his talk including at its end, there was silence.  When he opened up the floor for questions Antioch students silently and as one, rose and walked out of Kelly Hall.  The Committee for Racial Equality had circulated a letter to attendees of the event that stated that they should wear Stars of David “to symbolize our unity in the belief of the value of brotherhood of all.”  And that Rockwell “does not deserve our polite applause,” rather at the end of the talk, students were asked to simply get up and leave.  If there is any sign that this method was successful it comes when, several months following the event, Rockwell was asked if he had ever had a really bad reception by a college audience.  His answer: “yes, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.”

Questions of how the founder of a racist organization may have come to speak at Antioch aside, what makes this method of non-violent protest effective?  As with many forms of protest, without solidarity much of the significance of the action is lost.  Following the event, according to Sanders, several editorials arose, some asking the same question previously posed, how did this even happen? others condemning the action for a missed opportunity to ask important questions.  However, regardless of individual thoughts on the matter, the decision by the Committee for Racial Equality was respected and the action was carried out in the most effective way possible.  This story does not only serve to exemplify the importance of solidarity, dialectic here especially, it illustrates the potential role of community organizations in creating thoughtful, effective action.  Stories of Rockwell’s talks at other schools often include anecdotes of minor acts of violence, eggs being thrown, lots of yelling, etc.  At Antioch the action was unified, somber, and above all, non-violent.