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Nonviolence training during the U.S. Civil Rights Movements

By Joanne Sheehan

In 1942, radical pacifists formed the Nonviolent Action Committee of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which trained teams to provide leadership in antiracist and antimilitarist work. Out of that grew the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which in 1945 became the first organization to develop nonviolence trainings in preparation for involvement in the civil rights movement.

For 10 years beginning in 1947, CORE ran month-long training workshops in Washington, DC. Participants learned theories and skills in nonviolence and organizing, with the goal of breaking segregation in the capital area.

Early in the civil rights movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference based its preparation for nonviolent action campaigns such as the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott on African- American religious traditions. At mass meetings held in local churches, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others lectured on nonviolence. Community spirit and the nonviolent discipline were strengthened through singing and prayer. As civil disobedience became a crucial part of the civil rights movement, training included role-plays and the signing of a pledge to remain nonviolent.

It took extensive trainings to prepare civil rights workers for the violence they would encounter in the South. Students in Nashville trained regularly for months before sitting-in at a lunch counter in 1960. Participants in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 began with a two-week training. The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 held training programs for marchers, marshals and support people.

Excerpted from Decades of Nonviolence Training: Practicing Nonviolence by Joanne Sheehan from the Nonviolent Activist, July-August 1998.

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