- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2000

Many Americans know or care little about the tradition of direct-action nonviolence. But on Sept. 18 and 25, the Public Broadcasting System will illuminate the still reverberating lives of Gandhi, the Reverend James Lawson, a key strategist during the American civil rights movement, and Mikhuseli Jack, who helped conquer South African apartheid. This televised documentary is called "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict."

Another part of "A Force More Powerful" focuses on Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, Sergio Bitar, a key force in Chilean opposition to the murderous regime of Augusto Pinochet, and the extraordinarily brave Danish resistance to Nazi occupation.

I know something about the often-misunderstood subject of direct-action nonviolence. It is not passive pacifism, as the examples of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King have so compellingly demonstrated. My own knowledge comes from having written a biography and edited the letters of A.J. Muste, a Christian minister who was a key strategist of the anti-Vietnam War movement and also advised King in his nonviolent but very direct-action campaigns.

King told me that he became interested in the strategy of nonviolence when he heard A.J. Muste lecture at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where King was a student.

As A.J. Muste used to say and as this television documentary makes dramatically and reverberatingly clear "Peaceableness does not mean trying to disturb nothing or glossing over realities. It is the most profound kind of disturbance we seek to achieve. Nonviolence is not apathy or cowardice or passivity."

Steve York, who produced and wrote this two-part, three-hour documentary, points out: "Nonviolent movements often form in response to out-and-out tyranny; but rather than subduing people, repression often energizes them. It rouses public sentiment from the center, the core. The moderate middle won't act until the extremes are cast into dramatic relief."

"The tide turned in Nashville, for example," Mr. York goes on, "when the home of a prominent black lawyer was bombed. Such acts fueled the nonviolent ranks of the civil rights movement, rallied the African-American community, engaged the white community, and caught the attention of media and government because the contrast was devastating."

The contrast is between violent hatred and the nonviolence of determined resistance to that hatred.

During the Vietnam War influenced by A.J. Muste, Dorothy Day, the Catholic speaker of truth to power and others I committed civil disobedience in front of a draft registration center, along with hundreds of others that day.

Based on my knowledge of American leaders of nonviolent direct action including A.J. Muste and Martin Luther King Peter Ackerman, editor of this television series, is exactly right when he says that "leaders in these conflicts themselves are often reluctant leaders and even more reluctant heroes. They're not power-mad; they're not looking for glory. Some of them don't especially want to be leaders; they just want to stop the tyranny or the inequity."

There is a companion book to this documentary, published by St. Martin's Press. The title is the same: "A Force More Powerful." Sen. John McCain, who is well-experienced in direct action that is not nonviolent, says of the book: "I recommend it to anyone who believes that power only flows from the barrel of a gun."

There are added values to a PBS series like this one. The television program will be distributed to libraries and schools; videos can be purchased for home use. Moreover, the Albert Einstein Institution will see to worldwide dissemination of video cassettes and study guides for classrooms and libraries.

In a time when there are so few authentic heroes (none of whom are currently running for president on the major-party tickets), "A Force More Powerful" shows all of us young and old alike people who take principled risks far beyond their own self-interest.

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