Sages and Scientists

Diane Nash

Thank you so much I am very happy to be with you this afternoon as part of this wonderful Sages and Sciences symposium. In the fall of 1959 I was a student at Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee. I grew up on the south side of Chicago which was segregated but it did not have overt segregation like the Southern United States, signs that had white only and colored. Nashville was my first experience with that type of segregation, and I feel outraged when I obeyed segregation rules. It felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to go through the front door or into a particular restaurant. Libraries, swimming pools, hotels, and other public accommodations were segregated. Blacks could order food from restaurants provided that they bought it on a carry-out basis. You just could not sit down and eat at the restaurant, so if you went downtown in Nashville during the lunch hour, the Blacks who worked in the downtown area would be sitting on the curbs near the alleys eating the lunch that they had either brought from home or had bought from a restaurant on a carry out basis. 

I began looking for an organization that was trying to combat segregation. I asked students in my classes, in the dormitories, and in the cafeterias if they knew of any organization that was trying to eliminate segregation. Many of them said “No” and “Why are you trying to do this? You’re not going to be successful, and you’re only going to get into trouble. Why don’t you just go to class during the week, go to the parties on the weekend, and be cool.” I guess now they would say “chill,” but that was their message. Finally an exchange student named Paul Laprad told me about some workshops that were taking place just a couple of blocks away from Fisk campus. They were conducted by Reverend James Lawson. He had been to India and had studied Gandhi’s movement first hand, and then was conducting these workshops in order to teach the techniques and the information that he had learned to residents of Nashville and some of us students. 

I am a lucky woman. I was at the right place at the right time. I received an excellent education in non-violence and had the opportunity to practice it with Lawson and others until I learned how. When I thought about what I wanted to say to you this afternoon, I decided that I’d like to talk about the philosophy and strategy upon which the Civil Rights Movement was based. The philosophy and strategy behind the movement are to me fascinating aspects of the struggle. Few people really understand them. 

Mohandas Gandhi developed a way that social change can be brought about by using energy produced by love, instead of energy produced by weapons and violence. In your mind’s eye, you can picture the energy exerted by a bullet, or by artillery, or by a bomb. This is the way humankind usually wages warfare — that is, by the exertion of violent energy upon the opponent or enemy. And this is the way humankind usually conducts struggle to bring about social change. We know that energy is produced by many sources: natural gas, nuclear energy, and human emotions. Yes, human emotions produce energy. Have you ever gotten angry and cleaned up your whole house in a fraction of the time it normally takes? Okay, the emotion of anger produces energy! 

The emotion of love produces energy as well. Gandhi developed a way that thousands and thousands of people in a coordinated concerted manner can focus and exert energy produced by their love on an opponent, instead of using energy produced by violence in order to bring about desired social change. For example, during the sit-ins, the fact that people in parts of the country outside the South cared that their fellow human beings, Southern Blacks, were being humiliated and unjustly discriminated against at lunch counters motivated them to picket and refused to shop at Woolworth and other offending chain stores in their own cities. Thus the energy of hundreds of thousands of people was focused and exerted on those corporations in order to right an injustice, and the effort was successful. 

I coined and used the term agapic energy, because we needed a term that means more than just absence of violence, as in nonviolence. We needed a term that describes a very positive and a very comprehensive phenomenon. The word agape is the Greek word for Brotherly Love, or love of humankind. The adjective then would be agapic. Energy means power or force. We use that word constantly, as in nuclear energy, natural gas energy, and so forth. And agapic means love of humankind. So agapic energy is the energy produced by love of humankind, or the power produced by love of humankind. Agapic energy — it’s not a perfect term, but I think it’s an improvement on the word nonviolence as far as conveying the concept. So from now on this afternoon, when I use the term agapic energy instead of nonviolence, you will know what I mean.

Nonviolence or agapic energy is not just absence of violence; it is the use of a power. Agapic energy is not passive; it is active. Users of agapic energy are not pacifist; we are activist. I’d like to share with you a couple of the basic principles of agapic energy. These are principles that I learned in the sixties and have been able to use for a lifetime. Perhaps you’ll be able to use them. 

The first principle is: people are never the enemy. Now I know some of you are probably thinking that I can say that only because I do not know some of the people you know. I’ll say that again: people are never the enemy. Unjust political systems — those are enemies. Unjust economic systems: enemies. Attitudes, racism, sexism, ignorance, emotional and mental illness: those are enemies. If you recognize that people are not the enemy, you can love and respect the person at the same time you attack the attitude or action of that person. In Nashville, there was a manager of a restaurant who was an opponent the first year and an ally the second year. The way we proceeded in Nashville was that the first year we targeted six restaurants and lunch counters and took them through the process of desegregating them and successfully desegregating those six. The following year, we targeted 6 more restaurants and lunch counters in order to do the same thing. Now one of the men who was manager of one of the restaurants we worked on the first year took it upon himself to go to the owners and managers that we were working on the second year and say to them, “Go ahead and desegregate. It’s a good thing to do. We haven’t lost money.” So you see, he was an opponent the first year, and an ally the second year. Wouldn’t it have been a shame if we had killed or injured him, thinking that he was the enemy, when it was not he that was the enemy — it was his racism. 

One of the problems with using violence to bring about social change is that you often kill individuals and leave the oppressive system, or the real problem, untouched. Another basic principle of nonviolence is oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. I’ll say that again: oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. It’s a partnership between the oppressed and the oppressor. It’s something both do together, two sides of a coin. Let me give you an example of that. Take the Montgomery Bus Boycott: For decades Blacks and Montgomery had thought that whites were segregating the bus. In order for there to be segregated buses, the Blacks had to get on the bus, pay their fare, and walk to the segregated part of the bus. The day Blacks in Montgomery decided there would be no more segregated buses in Montgomery took no change on the part of whites. The day the Blacks decided there would not be segregated buses, there were no longer segregated buses. So then you have to say, “Well who was segregating the buses?” Clearly Blacks were, but so were whites because in order to resist segregation on those buses, Blacks ran the risk of being beaten, jailed, or even killed. So it was something the oppressed and oppressor were doing together. And when the oppressed withdrew their cooperation from the oppressive system, that system fell. 

The only person you can change is yourself. And when you change yourself, the world has to fit up against the new you. We changed ourselves in the South into people who could not be segregated. Our attitude was “shoot us if that’s what you’re going to do, but you cannot segregate us.” And when you do that, the racists were presented with a new set of options: They had to indeed kill us, or they had to eliminate segregation. 

With regard to strategy, an agapic energy campaign is a process. There’s six steps or phases in that process. Very briefly, the first phase is investigation. During that phase, you set a very specific goal and write it down. Very often people think that everyone’s in agreement on what the goal should be, but you find that when you write it down, that’s not always true. And that gives you an opportunity to work until you do come to an agreement on what your goal will be. You also identify how the oppressed are participating in their own oppression, so that at a later time they can withdraw that participation. Any facts, figures, demographics, financial information — just anything you need, you will gather during the investigation phase. 

The second phase is education. We do not seek to have blind followers. Therefore, you always have to be educating your constituency and recruiting more people to become constituents. The third phase is negotiation. During that phase, one of the valuable activities is that you get to talk with your opponent. In speaking with them, sometimes you learned that they have real problems. An example again from Nashville is that the businessman said that they were afraid that if they desegregated the lunch counters, they would experience a boycott from white patrons. And we thought that was a legitimate concern, because after all they were there to make money and were in business. So we considered it, and we said, “We think we can help you with that.” What we did was that we went to some of the progressive churches in Nashville, and we recruited some very dignified looking middle-aged ladies. And they agreed to sit at the newly desegregated lunch counters for the first three weeks, and as long as those ladies were there then there could not be a boycott by whites. That worked very well, except that the ladies complained bitterly at the end of that three weeks about all the weight that they had gained sitting there all day eating. So you see, there were many kinds of sacrifices made for freedom during the sixties. 

The fourth phase is demonstration. That’s the one where you see pickets, sit-ins, mass protests. The fifth phase is resistance. During that phase, that’s when the hardcore noncooperation with the system takes place. So you might have boycotts and economic withdrawals, work stoppages, national strikes, non-payment of taxes — whatever form of cooperation the oppressed is engaging in is withdrawn. And the sixth step is that you take steps to ensure that the problem does not reoccur. You might institutionalize your education programs, or set up a museum, or whatever it takes to make certain that the problem does not reoccur.

We’ve discussed the nature of agapic energy or nonviolence, and I shared a couple of principles of agapic energy with you. And then we talked about how to use it. History’s most important function is to help us cope with the present and future. Today the United States has many social problems. The movement of the 1960’s provides us with a legacy that we can use in 2013 and into this young century. In the 1960’s we did not know if agapic energy would work. Now we know that it does. We now have an alternate and a better way to conduct social and to wage war. We have an opportunity to move a step higher in our evolving into an improved species.

Voting in the U.S. is important today, but voting is not enough. We must understand that elected officials have not and will not do what is necessary to protect the interests of this country and of American citizens. The only way this country will make it through this frightening period and survive with citizens having a reasonable measure of rights is that we citizens must take the future of this country into our own hands. Can you imagine if we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters, buses, and get the right to vote in the South? We would probably still be waiting. So what do we need to do? I would say trust yourself. The politicians and people who’ve been running the world have made a pretty big mess of things. If you do your best, you’re not going to do worse than they have. 

My contemporaries and I had you in mind when we acted. We were in dangerous situations, and sometimes people would freak out. A number of times I saw the person standing next to them put their arm around that person’s shoulder and say, “Remember what we are doing is important. We are doing this for generations yet unborn.” So although we had not met you, you should know that we loved you. And we were trying our best to create a society, the best society we could for you to be born into and to come of age. Freedom is not something you get and then you’ve got it. Freedom is a constant, never-ending struggle. Every individual, that includes you, and every generation faces its own challenges. Thank you.