The novelist James Baldwin is quoted as stating: "The only time non-violence is admired is when the Negroes practice it."What does this quote mean in relation to the civil rights movement?

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I happen to disagree with Baldwin on this one.  I think he's being verbally ironic here, using tongue-and-cheek overstatement.

Gandhi was admired for his non-violence.  Thoreau too.  Jesus.  The Dalai Lama.  Cesar Chavez.  Leo Tolstoy.  Albert Einstein.

There were generally two schools of African-American Civil Rights in Baldwin's time: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  Both were essentially non-violent, although Malcolm X, I think, wanted a race war in the streets.  King's philosophy was descended from the non-violence of Christ (Christianity: "love your enemies," "turn the other cheek") and Gandhi (Eastern Philosophy: "just means lead to just ends").  X called for minority groups to arm themselves in preparation for a race war; he advocated forming "shotgun clubs" for self-defense, though not explicit violence.

It is ironic that the Christian Baldwin, who rejects the Black Muslim school, should sound so much like an adherent of X's segregation of the races:

The real reason that non-violence is considered to be a virtue in Negroes…is that white men do not want their lives, their self-image, or their property threatened.

This is bold, polemic language intended to get a rise out of whites and blacks.  I thinks it (and your quote too) is verbal fireworks only, not a call to arms for real ones.  It's an essentially Marxist argument: advocacy of the proletariate revolution.

Baldwin says that whites essentially like the quiet, passive, Uncle Tom, house Negroes because their non-violent existence allows whites to retain aspects of the master class: property, status, and self-image.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Baldwin's quote evokes much in terms of the complexity and nuances of the Civil Rights Movement.  When the emergence of Civil Rights acquired national attention in the late 1950s and 1960s, many in America argued against violence as being a means to achieve social and legal equality.  Those making this claim were individuals in the position of power.  Civil Rights leaders and thinkers argued, quite convincingly, that the call to nonviolence might be a valid appeal to one's moral sensibility, but it might also be a call to keep limits on those protesting for equality.  For example, the belief that nonviolence was called for by those in the position of power in response to bombings of Black churches or lynchings seems, on some level, as disproportionate.  At the same time, the demand on the part of those in the position of power for African- Americans to practice nonviolence as a way of achieving their equality and acknowledgement goes against the nature of American History.  The Colonists did not advocate nonviolence in the break with England, and certainly, the settlers of the West did not practice this philosophy in their removal of Native Americans from territories.  When Baldwin reminds us of how "admired" non- violence, as an approach was, he is pointing out that non- violence, while morally appealing, might not be seen as an acceptable solution given the challenges facing people of color in the Civil Rights time frame.

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