Nonviolence and Satyagraha in Social Activism: From Martin Luther King to Mubarak Awad

Reference: JSource Original

 is a term that was coined by Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1908. The word is often used as a synonym for “nonviolence,” but its closest translation is actually Sanskrit for “clinging to truth.” Gandhi developed this philosophy as the basis for the South African Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements. Sarvodaya is also one of the basic principles of Gandhism, a term that translates to “universal uplift,” and refers to man’s responsibility to care for all beings.

The principles of satygraha have been used as resistance tactics during violent conflicts and wars, as means of protest and protection. Satyagraha has also been the basis for social justice movements throughout the world, including the Civil Rights Movement for Racial Equality in the United States during the mid-20th century. Satyagraha was re-branded as “nonviolent resistance” by Baptist Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Protests against inequality were met, more often than not, with drastic acts of violence against protesters, and the method of enduring attack, rather than retaliating, became the standard within many factions of the overall movement. Upon seeing the effectiveness of this method at the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, SCLC ran workshops teaching nonviolent resistance techniques to all of their activists.

The Greensboro sit-in had been orchestrated by 4 black students attending a local university, and their independent activism inspired a new organization: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). With the help of longtime social justice activist Ella Baker, the students within the movement found their own voice, and branched off from SCLC. This new organization was more inclusive and, unlike SCLC, was not exclusively Christian. Though SCLC never closed their doors to non-Christians, and in fact had many Jewish activists in their ranks, SNCC’s philosophy was secular and based entirely on the principles of nonviolence. While the founders of SNCC acknowledged in their founding statement that nonviolence is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, they quickly distanced themselves from King’s religious-driven rhetoric.

Although Jews are not always included in the nationwide narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, they constituted a large percentage of white activists: in the Mississippi Freedom Rides of 1961, for example, about half of participating whites were Jewish. Two young Jewish men—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—became martyrs for the cause during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, after they, and fellow activist James Chaney, were brutally murdered by Southern segregationists.

One of the many reasons the Jewish community stood in solidarity with African Americans was their shared history of oppression. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century Holocaust, Jews have fought for their freedom for centuries, just as enslaved blacks across the world have fought for theirs. The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism explains that Jewish support of Civil Rights is deeply rooted in the Torah: “Judaism teaches respect for the fundamental rights of others as each person’s duty to God. ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). Equality in the Jewish tradition is based on the concept that all of God’s children are ‘created in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27).”

Just as the violent assassination of Gandhi devastated the Indian Independence movement, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968 was an immeasurable loss to Civil Rights. In the aftermath of King’s death, cities across the United States erupted in violent riots, and many feared that in the absence of King’s leadership, their nonviolent techniques would fail to inspire any real change. With the rise of the Black Power movement, SNCC departed from the tradition of nonviolence, changing the “N” in SNCC to “National” in 1969, and effectively ending the widespread use of nonviolent protest within the Civil Rights movement.

Nonviolence faded from Civil Rights activism in the United States during the 1970s, but it has been put to use in similar movements around the world in the years since. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides have co-opted satyagraha in their protest of the other. In the 1980s, Palestinian psychologist Dr. Mubarak Awad began to advocate for the use of nonviolent tactics against Israel. Awad had studied for his degree in the United States during the 1960s, at the apex of nonviolent activism in the Civil rights movement. He observed how nonviolence inspired support for the cause and helped to enact social change, and began to think about how this method could be applied to Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) heeded Awad’s advice, and in the late 1980s, Palestine had begun to garner nation support for their efforts, due to the diminished death toll of Israeli soldiers and the rising fatalities for Palestine. Up until this point, the PLO had been recognized as a terrorist group, but their participation in nonviolence led to Israel’s decision to acknowledge the organization as a legitimate representative of Palestine following the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991.

While the success of Madrid opened up a dialogue between the warring nations, lasting peace between Israel and Palestine has been unsustainable. Even after the Oslo Accords of 1993 attempted to further the discussion between Israel and Palestine, the resolutions of peace did not last. Despite PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s cooperation with Israel throughout a number of peace summits, violence began to run rampant once again among Palestinian extremists, including the terrorist organization Hamas and within his own party, Fatah. While many nonviolent protesters on both sides of the conflict continue to practice Gandhian methods, their impact has been significantly diminished due to the extreme violence that dominates the public eye.

Table of Contents


Gandhi and Israel

US Civil Rights Movement: MLK Jr. and Nonviolence

Jews in US Civil Rights Movement

Two Perspectives

Nonviolent Theory

Modern Protest

Occupy Wall Street

Israeli/ Palestinian Conflict

Nonviolence among Israelis
Nonviolence among Palestinians

Madrid Peace Conference 1991

Oslo Accords