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Last Updated: 03/17/2003
Interview with Mary King

ASHOK PATNAIK, a journalist working mostly on the Indian sub-continent, questions Professor Mary King, peace activist, academic, authority on non-violence and author of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action, which is about to be reissued in India and elsewhere. Professor Mary King is currently professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at UPEACE where, amongst other duties, she advises the Rector on the development of the Africa programme.

Tell us about your first brush with the philosophy and practice of nonviolent struggle?

MARY KING: For at least ten years, from 1955 to 1965, in the Deep South of the United States, a massive peoples' movement of tens of thousands worked to achieve basic Constitutional rights for African-Americans. You could say it was a movement of movements. This upheaval was consciously based on the same principles of power that had been employed in the Indian independence struggles in the first half of the twentieth century. Black Americans had, since the 1920s, realized that the strategies of resistance to oppression used in India might be directly applicable to the 'caste system' in the United States, as documented by the historian Sudarshan Kapur.

In 1962, as a young white woman, I joined the civil rights movement in Atlanta, and worked there, Mississippi, Virginia, and Southwest Georgia for four years. We learned the theories and methods of nonviolent direct action from individuals who had traveled to India before the emergence of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For example, James Farmer and James Lawson were among those who had made such trips, where they had met with activists in the various Gandhian campaigns and, in some cases, with Gandhi. Dr. King (no relation to me) was personally taught the fundamentals of nonviolent resistance by James Lawson and Bayard Rustin, who were affiliated with the Fellowship of Conciliation, and both of whom had separately brought back from India the results of their own studies. Martin Luther King, Jr., was carrying a gun and had armed guards, as requested by his church's board of trustees, when Rustin first started to work with him. Dr. King?like everyone else?had to learn a different way of struggling for human rights.

Trainers like Lawson and Rustin shared their knowledge with us in the nightly mass meetings and training sessions that were regularly scheduled. Mass meetings were usually held in churches; however, the training sessions were not part of worship and they were highly practical, often involving role playing. We learned how to withstand verbal assaults and epithets, how to roll into a ball to protect our vital organs if physically assaulted, and we studied the importance of communications. Bayard Rustin and Jim Lawson, Dr. King's trainers, were my teachers.

My most recent book Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action, originally published by UNESCO and recently brought out in a second edition in New Delhi, tells the story of the transmission of knowledge on how to fight with political tools. Nothing about nonviolent direct action is instinctive or intuitive. It must be learned.

As Gandhi influenced other movements, others' struggles affected him. He did not pull his ideas out of thin air. An extraordinarily eclectic reader, in his first year in South Africa he read eighty books. At least 235 books have been documented as volumes that he studied in his lifetime, probably a severe underestimation. He was aware of nonviolent struggles in China and Bengal, and he dispatched people to bring documentation of other instances of nonviolent resistance. More than once he acknowledged that Henry David Thoreau had been influential with him, particularly his insistence that unjust laws must be rejected. (Thoreau went to jail in Massachusetts in 1846, to register his refusal to support a government that he considered illegitimate because it condoned slavery and was seeking to expand slave territory through the Mexican War. This poll tax was the very same obstacle that the southern U.S. states were still using more than a century later, when I got involved, disenfranchising African-American and poor white voters, and thus our voter registration campaigns were aimed at overturning the very unjust laws that Thoreau had opposed.)

How powerful is the power of nonviolent action today?

MARY KING: The potency of nonviolent action could be greater in the twenty-first century than it was in the twentieth. Certainly, by the late 1980s it could be seen that nonviolent mobilizations extended over far more of the planet than had been the case in the first half of the twentieth century. The study of Gandhi's experiments, theories, and techniques has proved invaluable to possibly hundreds of movements around the world, and the truths that Gandhi discerned have been studied by struggles on virtually all continents. One critical insight is that all dictators, despots, military occupations, or governments rely upon popular cooperation, even under the harshest conditions, yet this support can be withdrawn. This insight is the basis of methods of noncooperation, the most important class of techniques in the repertoire of nonviolent strategic action.

Using methods such as boycotts, demonstrations, and strikes, nonviolent movements against totalitarian bureaucracies and despotic regimes have brought about social and political change in East Germany, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. Such struggles have sometimes prevailed against heavily armed security systems and the apparatus of state coercion. A nonviolent transformation succeeded in the Balkans in October 2000, when 70,000 student activists in 130 branches of a nonviolent organization called Otpor, brought down the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic with methods of political noncooperation such as civil disobedience.

In the Philippines in 1986, following the fraudulent election run by the Ferdinand Marcos government, the populace poured into the streets of Manila, and two army generals and their troops defected. Approximately three million men, women, and children, including priests and nuns, stood silently outside the military installations of Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame for more than three days protecting defecting soldiers with their presence from advancing army tanks and troops. Large numbers of military personnel the populace in resisting the Marcos government, which fell in seventy-two hours. Gandhi's idea of the 'constructive program' has had a continuing impact, in the form of alternative or parallel institutions. It is a powerful idea: one can begin living in a new order while still in the midst of the old. Even if ensnared in turbulence or military occupation, this advanced technique of nonviolent struggle has been employed, as networks of popular committees, agricultural cooperatives, and other systems for survival have been built into movements. In Kosovo, the southern-most province of Serbia, during the 1990s, ethnic Albanians developed one of the most extensive nonviolent movements of recent years. Organizing parallel institutions, they established hundreds of health clinics and schools, and organized tax collection institutions and popular referenda.

As scholars and activists worldwide pay more attention to documenting nonviolent struggle, and as more case scholarship is produced, knowledge will spread, thereby contributing to increased study and more use of nonviolent resistance?and greater successes. The literature is still in its infancy. Innumerable societies have successfully struggled for justice, reform, transformation, and Conciliation with nonviolent tools; yet military battles hold more intrigue for historians. Not until 1985 was the first book-length treatment of nonviolent resistance to Nazism was published in English, Jacques Semelin's Unarmed against Hitler. Everyone likes to ask whether nonviolent struggle would have worked against Hitler, but they are referring to 1939?they are not asking about earlier in the 1930s. Yet the story of Belgian industrial workers' and miners' strikes in resistance to Nazism, the remarkable saving of the Jews in Denmark through noncooperation methods, the networks of Dutch physicians and nurses, the civil resistance of the Norwegians based in churches and schools, and the intricate organizing of Czech university professors and students bear careful study.

As a champion of civil rights how do you confront the social inequalities, racial discrimination and terrorism?

MARY KING: In actions both big and small, one has unlimited opportunities for personal interventions, challenge, and witness?even in the absence of a coherent mass mobilization. Movements are constructed from small numbers of individuals, a thread that runs through Gandhi's writings. In the U.S. civil rights movement, the student sit-in movement was started by four individuals in 1960. By the end of the year, it had grown to where 70,000 white and black students across the South had used civil disobedience to violate the legal structures underpinning racial segregation. The student sit-ins made isolated stirrings into a regional mass phenomenon. The civil rights organization that I joined after university, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had sixteen people on staff in Atlanta, most of them in their twenties, when I first walked up the stairs to the tiny office above a tailor's shop. I tell this story in my book Freedom Song: A Personal Account of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Very small numbers of people can be immensely effective.

I see my life as a straight line from my days as a twenty-two year old civil rights worker to my global responsibilities today, teaching peace and conflict studies. Sometimes my students say yearningly that they wish they could work in something so explicitly confrontational with injustice as I had been able to do in the civil rights movement. I explain that every day they must seize the opportunity to fight the structural violence of poverty, to press for reform of bureaucracy, to struggle for justice, to fight hate groups, to counter intolerance, and to make their lives count. One pupil earnestly said to me that he wished he could be an activist working on something exciting, but the only thing he could think of was teaching. Since when, I asked him, is teaching not exciting and not a form of activism?

How does it feel to have Governor George Ryan (Illinois) commute the death sentences of 150 men and women? You must have been delighted when he attributed this move to the influence of Gandhi?

MARY KING: Governor Ryan's attribution to the influence of Gandhi proves my point about the continuing, and, I believe, widening sway of Gandhian principles. The governor was in the right place at the right time to take decisive action, but for several years he had conducted reviews of death row cases after he propounded a moratorium on executions. He discovered that thirteen death row inmates in Illinois had been wrongly convicted. Scientific evidence from DNA testing has exonerated dozens of convicted criminals in the United States. Governor Ryan came to question the validity of the death penalty, support for which had been steadily dropping in the United States before 11 September 2001. These scientific data have powerfully undermined the certainty of the advocates for the death penalty, raised new doubts about the reliability of jury verdicts, and wedged open the political space to examine the underlying economic, racial, and class aspects of who is condemned to die.

During your last visit to India in early 2001, you said 'we can dare to imagine a world without major wars'. Nine months later we saw the tragedy striking at the heart of America followed by global coalition military response to it and then the terrorist attack on Indian parliament; now the current volatile situation in Iraq. Where is the room for peace?

MARY KING: The number of traditional 'England vs. France' types of wars is declining. London's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) considers that there are now approximately two dozen wars underway, down from 34 fully fledged wars in progress in 1999, and 36 in 2000. Other think tanks might quibble with the numbers, but it is clear that the number of wars is diminishing. Most wars that persist today are internal conflicts and are probably less prone to escalation in full-scale international hostilities. The conservative IISS recorded 110,000 deaths in war in 1999, 95,000 in 2000, 60,000 in 2001, and projected that the number would be 40,000 in 2002. Although the numbers of mortalities from war are declining, 90 per cent of the victims of war are now civilians, half of whom are children (who comprise a growing proportion of soldiers).

What is troubling to many U.S. citizens about President Bush's plans for war is that more questions are being raised than have been answered. Do the new policies for waging a war on 'terror' offer effective means to win that 'war'? Are such policies new, or do they continue the same policies that precipitated the present situation? Aren't current U.S. policies calculated to increase hostilities against the United States?

Policies of pre-emption have replaced deterrence and containment, the previous foundations of U.S. strategy, which are no considered longer valid. In the name of countering threats from terrorists and rogue states since the 11th of September attacks last year, the United States appears to be tossing out the window the post-World War II system of multilateral institutions and coalitions (the UN Security Council and NATO) that the United States helped build, which had brought peace and stability for nearly sixty years. The Bush National Security Strategy of the United States - 2002, released in September, provides for pre-emptive strikes based on perceived threats against the enemies of the United States, aggressive self-defense, and unilateral pursuit of national interests. Tyranny has been equated with terrorism. Yet one of the purposes of terrorism, as the work of the military historian Sir Michael Howard shows, is a 'strategy of provocation', to provoke a government into heinous acts that forfeit public support and awaken popular revulsion, accompanied by sympathy for the revolutionary cause. I am not persuaded that containment has failed, and I fear that the 'strategy of provocation' is succeeding.

Karl Grossman, professor at the State University of New York, and author of Weapons in Space, describes as already underway a U.S. program for the weaponization of space, based on the presumption that there is no blanket prohibition in international law on placing or using weapons in space. Such a programme would enable the United States preemptively to attack any enemy, anywhere, at any time. An analysis in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution claims that the real purpose of war in Iraq has nothing to do with any of the stated reasons, which, according to Jay Bookman, don't make sense: 'This war, should it come, is intended to mark the official emergence of the United States as a full-fledged global empire, seizing sole responsibility and authority as planetary policeman. It would be the culmination of a plan ten years or more in the making'. Some of the mysteries are thus solved: why does the Bush Administration seem unworried about an exit strategy from Iraq, if Saddam is overthrown? The U.S. military won't be leaving. Permanent military bases would be created, from which to dominate and 'restructure' the Middle East, including neighboring Iran.

So there much room for deep concern, most especially about the perceived undermining of the UN. The Prussian military strategist Karl von Clausewitz famously said 'if you want peace, you must prepare for war'. Certainly it seems to me that if you prepare for war, you are predisposed to war. There is wisdom in the rubric of the University for Peace, which turns Clausewitz's saying on its head: 'if you want peace, you must prepare for peace'. Peace can be made, but its preparation is normally vastly more demanding than that of war, which is based on comparatively simplistic principles. As Joseph Nye, dean of the School of Government at Harvard, has written, U.S. neglect of 'soft' power abroad was a failing long before September 11. As military spending rose to 16 per cent of the national budget, expenditures on diplomacy and nonconventional diplomacy fell from approximately 4 per cent to one per cent or less, while foreign assistance also collapsed. 'It is difficult', he suggests, 'to be a superpower on the cheap-or through military means alone'. During the Kennedy years, the United States spent approximately one percent of GDP on the nonmilitary aspects of promoting its influence overseas through the Peace Corps, State Department, foreign assistance, United Nations, information and cultural programs, and educational exchanges.

Despite the inexpensive nature of such programmes, even when I had worldwide responsibility for the Peace Corps in the Carter Administration, and despite the fact that President Carter's mother Lillian had famously been a Peace Corps Volunteer in India, I still had fights with the federal budget examiners. In struggling for relatively paltry authorizations and appropriations, I had to deal with sixteen Congressional committees and sub-committees.

A fundamental re-evaluation of diplomacy, broadly defined to include its nonconventional dimensions (fellowship programmes, faculty exchanges, information services and libraries, and Track II diplomacy) is long overdue. It is also worth remembering that war often brings about the emergence of new institutions, frequently designed to prevent a repetition of what has just occurred. Proposals for a League of Nations emerged from World War I. The United Nations arose from World II. One issue on the table before thinking individuals today is the need to consider what institutional re-arrangements need to be made, and what new capacities need to be developed, in order to address underlying, causative problems. Education for Peace would top the list.

To explain the impact of nonviolence as a positive force to an angry movement would have been a difficult task. As one, who has analyzed many case studies, what are the rudiments you would employ?

MARY KING: People are not going to not fight. The project before us is thus to learn to fight for social and political reconstruction, human rights, bureaucratic reform, justice, gender equity, the lifting of military occupations, or whatever the grievance through the use of political tools. This firstly requires the recognition that anger is never a good basis for policy.

One of the biggest predicaments is caused by deficits in the literature. Many major accomplishments brought about through nonviolent struggle have not been documented. Correcting the historical record is a terribly important part of explaining the extremely high costs to a society of the automatic resort to violence. How can we argue against the reflex of armed struggle, militias, or civil war without better evidence of how it is possible to fight oppression, not by attacking the life of another but by undermining the power that supports injustice or grievance?

Only through understanding what nonviolent struggle is, and how it works, will people become convinced of its validity and potency. This form of struggle is often dismissed out of hand, instead of being seriously evaluated, considered, studied, and comprehended as a policy option or a practical choice. This is true not only activists and organizers, but also for guerrilla movements and governments.

Do a majority of people still believe in retributive theory?

MARY KING: To Gandhi, retaliation was indulgence. As the Harvard theoretician Gene Sharp has said, he was a shrewd political strategist, who observed that revenge awakens a thirst for more retribution. The quest for retaliation is not only unending, it is ineffectual in addressing the fundamental tribulations. Wreaking vengeance merely feeds a cycle of vengeance.

Gandhi understood one of the most important principles of power: 'Even the most despotic government cannot stand except for the consent of the governed which consent is often forcibly procured by the despot. Immediately the subject ceases to fear the despotic force, his power is gone' (Young India, 30 June 1920). Understanding that cooperation can be withdrawn from any ruler is an insight that is applicable to all systems.

If you accept Gandhi's fundamental conviction that conflict is unavoidable, it puts you one step closer to recognizing that conflicts must be managed and continuously addressed, even if they remain solved only until the next time. This view is now prevalent in the field of peace and conflict studies, and, like many insights taken for granted today, it is attributable to Gandhi's experiments. He also believed that conflict should not be resolved too fast, because that would not allow for institutional maturation to reflect new awareness. Gandhi's willingness for protracted nonviolent struggle?allowing for evolutions on both sides?needs more study. His insistence on seeking negotiations with the adversary stands as a warning against foreign policies that automatically rely on severing relations and halting discussion. Maintain contact at all costs, he would say, because a disharmonious relationship is preferable to none. Of course he would also question the assumption that the dominance of one nation over another should ever be at the core of statecraft.

Martin Luther King, having studied Gandhi in tutorials with seasoned professional trainers, also judged that retaliatory violence creates more problems than it solves. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he noted, 'Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation'.

In recent decades we hear less of peace initiatives and more of warmongerings. Your comments...

MARY KING: The news media have a difficult problem. Reportage will naturally flow toward the spectacular, the hideous, and the horrible. Long, slow processes that require analyses are difficult for reporters to cover. Editors are impatient. So is the public. Nonviolent movements and peace initiatives are by definition protracted, time-consuming processes, often invisible for years before they become visible. This is how it should be, since planning, preparation, study, strategizing, ingenuity, and discipline are required. The informed voluntary mobilization of people who are willing to accept the risks and penalties of noncooperation voluntarily is never quick or easy. It should also be remembered that the calibrations required for nonviolent struggle are far more complicated than those of conventional military strategy, and therefore harder to report.

In the United States today, the news departments of the television networks have been moved under the control of the entertainment executives. News coverage has become part of the scramble for 'market share', the game that dominates the few, huge news media conglomerates that dominate news reportage. When treated as entertainment, news coverage is profoundly affected, as the judgment on what it is worth to spend money on assigning correspondents is based on transient marketing concerns.

The Berlin Wall was not simply torn apart, spontaneously. A nonviolent mobilization had persisted diligently and quietly for nearly a decade, housed in churches where anyone could attend 'prayers for peace' and where a strong commitment to nonviolence was threshed out. By the time that candlelit vigils of tens of thousands emerged in the public squares, a far more significant and massive mobilization of noncooperation against the hated secret police had been solidified in the East German populace. When the Berlin Wall fell, it was after the fact. The population had already ceased to fear and obey the security apparatus. The noncooperation measures that were utilized had caused shifts within the bureaucracy and security systems, and eventually the state system imploded. As Gandhi had noted seventy years earlier, 'the most despotic government cannot stand except for the consent of the governed'. News reports emphasized the visible action of pulling apart the wall as a single event. The real story was vastly more complex and difficult for the news media to interpret.

Earlier, I mentioned the downfall of the dictator Milosevic in October 2000. It was not the capital city of Belgrade that brought down Milosevic, despite the emotive televised images of the federal parliament in flames. Rather, the political demise of Milosevic came about through a provincial uprising organized primarily by Serbian students acting through a grass-roots movement called Otpor, or Resistance. One heard nothing about the 70,000 students or the 130 branches of Otpor, until after the Serbian parliament burned. Yet more than 2,000 Otpor activists had been imprisoned for their noncooperation with the provincial authorities in the preceding two years. Seeing the young in jail simply for refusing to obey the edicts of regional officials had the effect of turning relatives and friends of the students against a regime that was engaged in unreasonable violence against unarmed youths. Yet the world knew little or nothing of these arrests, nor of the two years of preparation prior to October 2000, while the Otpor students were diligently studying the theories and methods of nonviolent struggle.

Tell us about the Africa Programme of the University for Peace.

MARY KING: In 2002, I was part of a team that visited thirty-nine universities and met with more than 400 nongovernmental organizations in Africa. The field of peace and conflict studies may be weak or non-existent in parts of Africa, but remarkable work is in progress, often in isolation, as dedicated academicians and leaders of non-governmental organizations pioneer and improvise. The team, which sometimes included Ambassador Mohamed Sahnoun and Rector R. Martin Lees, found it both imperative and feasible to connect African scholars and their counterparts in civil society, by building a continent-wide knowledge network. We found extraordinary creativity and innovation on the part of professors and lecturers, who are trying to respond to the strong student clamour for peace studies, with slender resources. Commandeering resources, they are cobbling together courses, using multidisciplinary team teaching, making heavy use of copying machines for want of books, and adding to their already taxed teaching schedules, so as to meet student demand. Young Africans want to learn conciliation, mediation, negotiations?the practical tools of solving disputes and resolving conflicts.

The new Africa Programme, spark-plugged by the coordinator Ameena Dennis in Geneva, will strengthen the work of lecturers through curriculum development workshops, short courses for academicians, seminars on development of master's degrees in peace and conflict studies and joint faculty supervision of graduate students, inexpensive course materials, lifting up to better view the research being done by African scholars, and training programmes for civil society organizations?which are often on the cutting edge of settling conflicts. Over several years, an interactive network will be developed, to provide Internet access to course materials, bibliographies, research, abstracted theses, and data from partner institutions, and to facilitate online connexions between members of the network.

Some South African academicians with whom we are working are proud of an 'indigenous tradition of Gandhi, Lithuli, and Biko'. They believe that theirs is an 'indigenous' non-Western tradition, forged in the apartheid furnaces of Natal, and, since Gandhi worked in Natal Province, South Africa, for twelve years, they consider him theirs?African. In their eyes his work is directly linked with that of the Zulu chief and president of the African National Congress (1952-60) in South Africa, Albert Luthuli of Natal, the first African to receive a Nobel Prize for Peace (1960), for his leadership of nonviolent struggle to end racial discrimination. And it is also connected to the defiance of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid organizer, who was admitted to medical school in Natal, but was killed in 1977, having been beaten to death by apartheid state police. Gandhi's ideas and thinking have pulsated westward throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. I hope that this proves my point about the widening influence of Gandhian thought and principles of power, particularly as records improve and more scholars and activists are able to document nonviolent struggles.