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Non-Violent Resistance

Page history last edited by Stephanie Knox 13 years, 3 months ago

Nonviolent Resistance Learning Objectives

After this section, participants should be able to meet the following objectives:

  • Define nonviolent resistance 
  • Understand the key theories of non-violent resistance
  • Discuss the key figures in nonviolent resistance movements
  • Understand the relevance of nonviolent resistance to peace education 
  • Understand ways to apply nonviolence in the classroom 


Guiding Questions 

Before reading this section, consider the following questions:

  • Is there anytime or any situation when violence is acceptable?
  • Throughout history, revolutions have occurred by violent and nonviolent means. Which have been more successful? Is a violent revolution the only means to overthrow a violent regime?



Nonviolence has been defined as “both an attitude and a course of action that seeks to build a community of caring” (Hermann, quoted in Gorsevski, 2004, p. 31). It is a system of thought as well as a framework for action. Though nonviolence has a significant and varied history, modern society has seen a re-emergence of this philosophy as a viable method for change. Nonviolence is notably both a moral and a pragmatic philosophy.


One of the greatest hurdles of peace researchers has been to "pull nonviolence down from its impossible pedestal of saintly perfection" (Gorsevski, 2004, p. 18). There is a public perception which equates pacifists, the individuals who reject violence, with nonviolence activists, who engage society attempting to positively change their society without the use of violence.


Teaching nonviolence is a difficult task. Educators have to find a balance between the practical methods of nonviolence while simultaneously demonstrating the value of the inherent ideals of nonviolence. Practitioners of nonviolence place value in democracy, human rights, and critical thinking.


The practical methods of nonviolent change can be demonstrated in the classroom by the retelling of the significant nonviolent success stories - of which there are many. This will be further considered in the case studies section of this curriculum. Demonstrating the ideals of nonviolence is no easy task when we are confronted by a society which insists that violence must be met with violence to achieve peace. Demonstrating the ideals inherent in nonviolence will be further considered in the practical applications section of this curriculum.


In this section, we will look briefly at the history of the nonviolence movement, and then consider a short analysis of the current theories of how nonviolent change can be affected. We will consider the pedagogical implications of nonviolence, and how to best incorporate it into the classroom. Finally, we will consider some practical application of this pedagogical theory.


Key Figures in Nonviolent Resistance Movements  

The last century has seen a significant development of nonviolent thought and philosophy, and several major charismatic political figures emerged.  In this section, we will briefly consider and analyze the major figures in nonviolence, their influences, and the significant implications their theories and actions hold for nonviolence in the classroom.



Mohandas K. Gandhi, or Mahatma Gandhi, is the most recognizable figure demonstrating nonviolence, and is most widely known for his activism for India's independence from the British Empire. His life, political activism and philosophy are exemplary when considering how to affect positive change nonviolently.


Gandhi was inspired by nonviolence far before his actions in India; his earliest exposure to nonviolence was in his correspondence with Leo Tolstoy and through reading of Letters to a Hindi. His earliest philosophy of Satyagraha - a Gujarati word translated as "truth-force" - was proposed in South Africa in 1908. His early experiences would help formulate his principles which define modern nonviolent action.


Gandhi's actions in India, especially the Salt Satyagraha of 1930, are famous the world over. The Salt Satyagraha was a people's movement designed to encourage nonviolent coercion. This is a method of nonviolent change which removes the oppressor's basis of power - the people whom he leads. This movement alone did not create Indian independence, which took decades and significant struggle. However, it did demonstrate that British rule in India could only proceed with the acquiescence of the Indian people.


Here we will look at the principles of Satyagraha, and how they were then applied to the Salt Satyagraha:

1. Truth: Satyagraha's moral basis was grounded in truth, a basis much deeper than that provided by the theory of consent. To be binding, laws had to be truthful. All untruthful laws had to be resisted, though civilly—that is, by truthful means. Prior to the Salt Satyagraha, the Indian National Congress declared India independent. The Salt Satyagraha broke an untruthful law as the British government had no right to impose their will.


2. Civil disobedience presupposed the obligation to obey the state: only those had the right to practice civil disobedience who knew "how to offer voluntary and deliberate obedience" to the laws of the state. 


3. Nonviolence: Commitment to nonviolence was an essential component of civil disobedience. The commitment in question could be either moral or tactical, depending on the moral aptitude of the practitioner. Gandhi's aim was to actualize the suffering and injustice committed by the British against the Indian people; if violence was committed by both sides, only a polarization of the bases would occur and little gain would be made. 


4. Moral fitness: The practice of civil disobedience required a minimum degree of moral fitness, to be acquired by the exercise of such virtues as truthfulness, nonviolence, temperance, courage, fearlessness, and freedom from greed. This principle was designed to prepare the practitioners of Satyagraha to adhere to strict nonviolence in the face of severe oppression and violence.


5. Acceptance of consequences: Practitioners of civil disobedience had to accept the punishment consequent to the disobedience voluntarily, and without complaint. The effect of this willful submission to punishment is demonstrated by the moral polarization the civil disobedience affected in world opinion. 


6. Organized social work: Finally, engagement in civil disobedience had to be complemented by engagement in organized social work. This ensured broad social support and necessitated a clarity of message. 


What should be noted in this discussion of civil disobedience is that all of Gandhi's principles of Satyagraha are tactical, pragmatic principles. All of these have a direct application when attempting to create positive change.


Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a clergyman, activist, and prominent leader in the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 60s. As King was deeply influenced by Ghandi's work, the principles of Satyagraha are evident in his political activism. His fundamentals principles of nonviolence proceed in a parallel fashion to Gandhi's. According to Moses (1997), these are King's propositions of nonviolence:


  1. Even though nonviolence is ordinarily portrayed as cowardly, it is not. Nonviolent action and a willingness to suffer, rather than inflict suffering, requires a greater amount of courage.
  2. The nonviolence protester does not seek to disgrace his opponent, but to seek his understanding and friendship. The most efficient change occurs when both sides work towards one goal. 
  3. Nonviolence is directed towards evil, not towards those people committing the evil. Working against those people committing the evil only serves to further polarize the opposition and works against cooperation. 
  4. Nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliating. This is parallel to Gandhi's proposition of accepting consequences. By accepting physical suffering, the nonviolent resistor actualizes the suffering an oppressor regularly inflicts. This is fundamental to changing popular opinion and removing support from an oppressor. 
  5. God is always on the side of Truth. This is both a moral and tactical concept. To engage in a social transformation for reasons which are truthful will provide a solid moral basis and popular support will be more easily garnered.
  6. Nonviolent resistance prevents physical and emotional harm, and replaces hate with love. A continued influx of love will eventually erode societal institutions and practices which embody hate, anger, and violence. 


Cesar Chavez 

King and Gandhi's philosophies were instrumental in creating the pragmatic nonviolent philosophy of Cesar Chavez. Chavez was a civil rights activist and labour leader who founded the United Farm Workers in California. Chavez's union policies, though aggressive, strictly adhered to nonviolent philosophy. His pragmatic philosophy of nonviolent change is beneficial to study, and offers a valuable viewpoint into the question of the viability of violence as a political tool.


Can violence be used to promote a nonviolent society?

“It would be foolish to rule out... all of the vast range of possible tactics beyond strict nonviolence.”

– Howard Zinn (quoted in Orosco, 2008, 262).


A number of scholars have critically disagreed with strict nonviolence, arguing that history does not establish that violence only begets violence. Violence against property can be used to establish a new dynamic of power against those who would oppress and those who would fight for their own rights. There are a number of limitations to the use of violence, but that does not mean it cannot be used constructively for positive change. This viewpoint may be defined as qualified violence(Orosco, 2008, 261-263).


Chavez. however, posits that it is not only the propagation of violence we wish to avoid, but the establishment of violence as a viable method of social change. He believes this is an undesirable conclusion because historically, such methods harm those who need societal reform the most - the impoverished and disenfranchised. Chavezargues for a conception of all human beings as autonomous agents. Principled violence assumes that violence can be controlled to be only used against property; Chavez believes that violence cannot be restricted to the stringent set of rules composed by the leadership. Finally, he believes that property destruction only perpetuates a cycle of violence: "the employers will just wait long enough until they can get even with you - and then the workers will respond, and then..." (Orosco, 2008, 263-269). If we continue to use violence in social politics, then it will continue as a medium through which social change is achieved.


Chavez's philosophy must be considered along with the philosophy of political activists who have supported the use of violence to achieve positive change. Among these activists are Mohandas K. Gandhi, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, among many others. Mandela, despite years of adhering to nonviolence, eventually became a supporter of organized sabotage against the South African apartheid regime. However, immediately following Mandela's support of qualified violence he noted the increased polarization between black and white: "The lines were being drawn. The whites and blacks were moving into separate camps, and the prospects of avoiding a civil war were made less" (Mandela, 1964).


The question between strict nonviolence and qualified violence still remains open. The practicalities of the use of qualified violence become a tactical possibility only when all other options have been exhausted. Qualified violence does perpetuate the cycle of violence, but in certain excessively oppressive situations violence becomes seemingly inevitable.


Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp, a leading theorist in the field of nonviolent change, mentions a number of the practical considerations of nonviolence. Several significant conclusions about the viability of nonviolence emerge from his work. 


Sharp classifies methods of nonviolent change into two distinct categories. Sharp states that these are Acts of Omission, in which the protester omits an actions which he/she would normally perform, which includes boycotts and strikes. When the protester commits an act that he/she would not normally perform, such as a protest, these are Acts of Commission. Sharp mentions that the most pragmatic course of action is to pursue a method of change which combines these two forms (Sharp, 2005a, p. 249-250). 


Sharp also discusses three possible outcomes from nonviolent change. Sharp classifies these as:

  • Conversion, in which the authority or base of oppression has come to a new point of view due to the nonviolent protest, and social change is actualized;
  • Accommodation, which is an intermediary conclusion, in which the authority has not lost his power or changed his mind, yet concedes to a degree to the demands of the nonviolent protesters; and, 
  • Nonviolent Coercion, which is a method of change in which the authority's base of power has been removed and no longer possesses the means to enforce an oppressive environment (Sharp, 2005b, p. 254).

According to Sharp, one of these outcomes must be met in order for nonviolent change to have occurred. If one of these conclusions has not been reached, then nonviolent change has not occurred.


Case Study: Clara Luper and Nonviolent Action During the US Civil Rights Movement

This brief case study demonstrates the practical application of nonviolent reform actualized by a small, local group. This case study concerns the American Civil Rights movement, and the actions within are focused upon the removal of the practice of segregation from public places. At the end of this section, there is a sample lesson which uses this case study in classroom practice (See Sample Lesson, below).


Clara Luper was an African-American teacher and nonviolent activist who denounced the practice of segregation during the American civil rights movement. Luper's actions demonstrate the effectiveness of a small group of nonviolent activists. In 1958, in Oklahoma City, Clara Luper and 12 of her students organized a sit-in in Katz Drug Store; they sat in the "whites-only" section of the store and requested service; the request was denied, and the owner asked Luper to leave. Luper refused to leave, and a violent response ensued. Clara Luper remarks on being beaten, shoved, and spit on. However, due to nonviolent nature of the protest, none of the protesters were arrested when the police arrived. On the subsequent day, Clara Luper learned that Katz Drug Store had discontinued the process of segregation in 38 locations throughout several states. 


Clara Luper's protest was met with incredible and rare success; however, the practice of segregation still continued in many public places. She continued to organize sit-ins throughout the American Civil Rights movement. Despite the harassment, abuse and threats Clara Luper received, she refused to concede. Her actions along with her 12 students are still celebrated today as a major part of the American Civil Rights movement. This demonstrates the power of nonviolence towards social change; even a small group can direct positive social change. 


Nonviolence in Pedagogy 

Promoting nonviolence in pedagogy is done through the promotion of nonviolent behaviours. According to Ian Harris (2003), there are a number of ways in which educators may achieve this goal:

  1. Set up the classroom in a way that is respectful of all interests, concerns and needs. This can be a constructive process in which the students assist in the creation of their own constitution for the class.
  2. Use affective group technique which allows them to practice nonviolence. Allow students the opportunity to analyze their local situations and provide real, pragmatic responses to them - let them determine what behaviours, attitudes, or situations are unfair in their own community. Allow the students, cooperatively and in groups, to come up with a nonviolent solution to the problems they have identified. 
  3. Allow for discourse on moral reasoning and explore argumentation. Allow the students to examine situation in which moral principles are involved - for example, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the escalation of the arms race. Let the students determine which moral principles, if any, were used in these situations.
  4. Allow the student to explore all points of view for any topic. For example, in a history class this might be carried out by analyzing several primary documents detailing the struggles of oppositional sides, as well as several articles detailing world opinion. Exploring different perspectives allows for the student to have the most complete worldview. This teaches that the world is neither wholly wonderful nor violent. Furthermore, it reinforces the idea that the world is beset by serious problems, yet allows for the serious proposal of nonviolent methods of change (p. 212-217).


Ultimately, educators have a civic duty to promote nonviolence as a viable method of social change. The rich history of positive nonviolent change worldwide demonstrates that nonviolence is emerging as the most successful method of societal change in the 21st century. Educators must utilize nonviolence in the classroom to ensure that this trend continues. 


Sample Lesson

Here is an sample lesson that allows students to explore the principles of nonviolence as a tool for social change.


The Viability of Nonviolence 

Goal: To demonstrate to the student the validity of nonviolence as a method for social change

Learning Objective: The students will discuss the validity of nonviolence as a method for social change and prepare a short report on nonviolence.

Time: 50 minutes

Materials: Paper, pen, abridged copies of Behold These Walls (1979), Clara Luper's work detailing her own struggle with segregation.

 (Any alternative source which briefly describe Luper's struggle may be used; a sample story follows the lesson plan)


  1. Students will individually study the story of Clara Luper and the NAACP Youth and distill several nonviolent principles from the story. The instructor will provide questions which should serve as a general guide. Examples of such questions would be: why does Luper not respond violently to threats? Why do the students sit in the segregated section? Who does Luper oppose? 
  2. The students will break into groups and compare their results from individual reading. 
  3. The students will elect a spokesperson from each group to report their findings. 
  4. The students will be relocated to new groups. 
  5. The instructor will pose several questions to the newly-formed students group, such as:
    1. How do you think this conflict would have proceeded if Luper and her students retaliated after being beaten?
    2. If they had begun with the use of violence?
    3. If they did not persevere through beatings, threats, and abuse?
    4. If they did nothing? Would segregation still be practiced if coloured people had not fought for their rights? 
  6. The students will elect a spokesperson from each group to report their findings. 
  7. The students will be asked to prepare a short report detailing their personal opinions on the viability of nonviolence. This report will serve as a method of evaluation to ensure that learning is occurring. 


Sample Story: From Oklahoma Sit-Ins: A Conversation With Clara Luper

(Stories in America blog: http://storiesinamerica.blogspot.com/2005/07/oklahoma-sit-ins-conversation-with.html)


In 1957, high school history teacher Clara Luper was given the opportunity to escape segregated Oklahoma by spending a few days in New York presenting "Brother President," a play she wrote about Martin Luther King. Luper and the group of students she brought with her were able to go about their day like everyone else and order sodas from non-segregated lunch counters. As their bus journeyed back through the Jim Crow South, Luper vowed to take on segregation and explained how she was going to do it in her book, Behold the Walls:

"I though about my father who had died in 1957 in the Veterans' Hospital and who had never been able to sit down and eat a meal in a decent restaurant. I remembered how he used to tell us that someday he would take us to dinner and to parks and zoos. And when I asked him when was someday, he would always say, "Someday will be real soon," as tears ran down his cheeks. So my answer was, "Yes, tonight is the night. History compels us to go, and let History alone be our final judge."

Shortly thereafter, Luper and 12 members of the NAACP Youth Council, ages six to 17, walked into the Katz Drug Store in downtown Oklahoma City and ordered 13 Coca-Colas. A typical response from Luper's fellow white customers was, "The nerve of the niggers trying to eat in our places. Who does Clara Luper think she is? She is nothing but a damned fool, the black thing." Thanks to patience and persistence, Katz, a major drug store, eventually desegregated the lunch counters in all of its 38 stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa.

That action led to similar sit-ins in Oklahoma City and across the South. Luper eventually became known as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."


“Our nonviolence is as yet a mixed affair. It limps. Nevertheless, it is there and it continues to work like a leaven in a silent and invisible way, least understood by most. It is the only way.”

– Mahatma Gandhi.





Gandhi, M. K. (2005). On Satyagraha.  In R. Holmes & B. Gan, (Eds.) Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press.


Gorsevski, E. (2004). Peaceful Persuasion. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Harris, I. and Morrison, M. (2003). Peace Education. North Carolina: McFarland and Company.


Holmes, R. and Gan, B. (Eds.). (2005).  Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press.


Mandela, N. (1964). I am prepared to Die. Retrieved from http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/mandela.htm


Moses, Greg. (1997). Revolution of conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the philosophy of nonviolence. New York: Guilford Press.


Orosco, J.-A. (2008).  Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence. Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press.  


Sharp, G. (2005a). Nonviolent Action: An Active Technique of Struggle. In R. Holmes & B. Gan, (Eds.) Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. Long Grove,

     Illinois: Waveland Press. p. 247-253.


Sharp, G. (2005b). The Technique of Nonviolent Action. In R. Holmes & B. Gan, (Eds.) Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. Long Grove,

     Illinois: Waveland Press. p. 253-256.



Selected Bibliography

Ackerman, P. and DuVall, J. (2000). A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Palgrave Publishing.


Bondurant, J. (2005). Satyagraha in Action.  In R. Holmes & B. Gan, (Eds.) Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press. p. 85-95.


Galtung, J. (1996). Peace by Peaceful Means. London: SAGE Publications.


Hudson, F. (2003). Clara Luper: Civil Rights Movement in Oklahoma City. Interview with Clara Luper. Retrieved

     from http://www.rose.edu/EOCRHC/Oral-Luper,C.htm.


Orosco, J.-A. (2005). Cesar Chavez and Principled Nonviolent Strategy.  In R. Holmes & B. Gan, (Eds.) Nonviolence in Theory and Practice. Long Grove,

     Illinois: Waveland Press. p. 261-270.


Wolpert, S. (1999). India. Berkeley: University of California Press.  


Zinn, Howard. A Fallacy on Law and Order: That Civil Disobedience Must be Absolutely Nonviolent. In J. Murphey (Ed.) Civil Disobedience and Violence. Belmont,

     CA: Wadsworth. p. 103-111.

Comments (2)

Julia Smith said

at 1:42 pm on Aug 8, 2010

I've added some comments in the text, mostly about things that were confusing to me. The other comment that I have is with regards to the Clara Luper section. Right now it doesn't seem to entirely fit in with the rest. You have it labeled as a case study but it, to me, seems more like a lesson plan. I think it is important to have a lesson plan but I think you need some sort of introduction explaining it as that. Also, I think there is a lot more information in the section than needs to be.
Just my thoughts. Otherwise, nice job with the theories of non-violence and discussion of if violence is ever necessary!

Jonathan Stone said

at 6:09 pm on Aug 21, 2010

Thanks for the comments and edits! I appreciate it. Hopefully I've managed to condense this into a more reasonable length.
The only comment I was a bit unsure about was the (???) in reference to Gandhi supporting the use of qualified violence. Do you think I should include a bit more information about that, or a simple statement? I originally had more, but I felt Mandela's was more applicable.

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