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Introduction to Nonviolence

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

By Jason Manrique (April, 2020)

Table of Contents


Nonviolent Movements

International Nonviolent Struggle

Nonviolence in Academia and in the 21st Century


Nonviolence: An Introduction

Nonviolent activism over the course of the 20th century helped influence the world and century in a positive direction. There now is an effective option to fight back against injustice and oppression around the world without having to cause more pain and conflict. These days, nonviolence has an academic catalog full of examples, theory and scholars who help guide those in search of learning more on the subject of nonviolent philosophy. But first, What is Nonviolence?

A simple definition for nonviolence can be that it is the use of peaceful means, not by force, to bring about social change. However, this is a very simple and broad definition of what nonviolence is or can be. There are different aspects of the nonviolent philosophy that require their own meaning:

  • Nonviolent Communication for example is about expressing and hearing needs nonviolently resulting in mutual understanding and agreements between cooperating groups.

  • Nonviolent Conflict Resolution and Mediation are where special measures and techniques are employed to resolve conflicts that previously had been found to be irretractable. Mediation is where these techniques are employed by a neutral third party.

  • Nonviolent Noncooperation can be defined as when one group applies symbolic methods to disrupt daily processes of life in order to bring awareness to society of injustices or inequities.

  • Nonviolent Resistance is when oppositional measures are taken in different forms of protest to provoke and expose unacceptable actions and thus embarrass and shame the group doing the actions in the eyes of the public and the international community.

Examples of these forms of nonviolence will be provided later in this article.

Nonviolent Movements

Notable Nonviolent Movements: Early 20th Century

Nonviolent movements were active throughout the 20th century, helping shape society into what it is today.

Early on, it was the Women's Suffrage movement in the United States during the early 1900’s. One of the most notable events to come from that movement was the Suffrage Parade of 1913. The reason why is because this parade marked the first large march to take place in Washington D.C, where women from all over the country came together and marched for the right to vote. President Woodrow At the time, Wilson was going to have his inaugural address. This event helped ignite the suffragist movement and continue to hold Wilson’s administration accountable culminating in the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Meanwhile, around the same time in another part of the world, a young Mahatma Gandhi was preparing one of his first large-scale acts of civil disobedience against the British Empire. The 1920 Non-Cooperation movement was Gandhi’s example of what nonviolent noncooperation can look like when being implemented in real life. The movement had participants resign from positions en masse (election workers, teachers, courts, other administrative positions) and threaten to not pay taxes as well. While the non-cooperation movement ended in 1922, it marked the first time where civil disobedience came from all parts of Indian society instead of just an educated middle class, signifying that the independence movement was gaining popular support.

Nonviolence During the Civil Rights Era

The success of India's independence movement due in large part to Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy helped inspire an upcoming generation of activists around the world that it is possible to fight back against oppressors without using violence. This would be seen best in the tactics and philosophies of activists during the American Civil Rights Era of the 1950s-1960s. The most significant example of this would have to be the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who directly cited Gandhi as an inspiration and applied Gandhi’s methods of nonviolence to what King was trying to accomplish working toward abolishing the discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the American South. For example, King played a pivotal role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, preached nonviolence even after threats and attempts on his life were made, met with students of Gandhi, and delivered his iconic “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. MLK’s nonviolent philosophy remains one of his most notable characteristics in the eyes of the American public. Another lesser-known activist of the era is James Lawson. Lawson, similar to King, also came from a Christian upbringing revolving around nonviolence. It was his work in India where he directly learned about Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence, Satyagraha, and then even had Dr. King urge him to move to the South and help teach people the nonviolent activism he had learned in India from Gandhi’s students. Lawson's teachings would prove to be very important and impactful during the Civil Rights Era, being a mentor and teacher to notable young activists such as Diane Nash and John Lewis, who themselves would go on to lead the sit-in movement throughout the South.

In the West, there was another similar struggle going on in the western part of the country during this time. Racism, corruption, and poor working conditions were common amongst farm workers in the western United States (workers who were often Mexican or Filipino immigrants). The man who would directly challenge the oppressive system rose from those ranks was Cesar Chavez. Chavez, very much like Martin Luther King was inspired by his religious upbringing (MLK with the Baptist church and Chavez with the Catholic church) and the work of Gandhi. A notable difference in Chavez’s experience is that he was also inspired by the Civil Rights movement that had been going on in the South at almost the exact same time he was fighting for labor rights in the west. A very crucial moment came in 1965 when the union he created joined a grape strike that was soon elevated to national notoriety due to the nonviolent tactics Chavez helped lead. Things such as asking for strike members to commit to nonviolence, long marches, and even a hunger strike by Chavez to protest the talks of committing acts of violence within the striking worker's ranks. Cesar’s work was recognized by notable Civil Rights figures such as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, receiving a letter of praise and solidarity from King at one point. Chavez and the grape workers won in 1970 when their union was officially recognized.

International Nonviolent Struggles

While the work of nonviolent activists such as Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, and James Lawson and so many others during the American Civil Rights Era brought groundbreaking change, there were (and are) still ongoing struggles in other parts of the world.

Halfway across the world from America, the indigenous Africans of South Africa were in the midst of an ongoing struggle that would last much longer than the Civil Rights Era in America. The Apartheid regime in South Africa was a brutal system set in place by the white minority-controlled government beginning in the late 1940s. The country where Gandhi had first learned and implemented his early nonviolent philosophy was now the setting for another struggle. There were different forms of opposition used against the apartheid regime, from nonviolent ones to armed resistance. 1952 was when anti-apartheid activists implemented their first wide-scale act of nonviolent resistance. Disobeying the laws of apartheid by meeting in massive groups at locations such as train stations, post offices bus stops, schools, this would be known as the National Defiance Campaign. Thousands of people were arrested and membership for the African National Congress (ANC) political party skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, the campaign was met by harsh retaliation by the apartheid government and no concessions were made. However, nonviolence was still the main tool used by the South Africans throughout that period. Others actions were taken such as bus boycotts, demonstrations, and even burning passes. International pressure from the United Nations also dealt significant blows to the apartheid regime with arms embargoes on South Africa (Security Council Resolution 181, 182) , condemnation from the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly to name some examples.

It was during the 1970s and 1980s where different methods of civil disobedience were taken as a result of the oppression by the South African government. By that point, many activist leaders who were imprisoned were being released and at the same time, labor strikes were rising which helped show anti-apartheid activists that they can sabotage the inner workings of the Apartheid system using labor power. Mass work strikes, school boycotts, funerals for murdered activists were the new actions being used. These tactics served as a leverage system in that government officials and employers were worried about having a shortage of skilled workers in the near future and/or not having labor leaders/activists to negotiate with during labor disputes.

Economic boycotts had also become popular where practically the entire community does not go to work or shop at local businesses, hurting the white-owned businesses and other employers. As a result of the constant boycotts and other actions by the anti-apartheid activists, mixed with the international condemnation and sanctions brought by the UK and USA, the South African government slowly began making concessions by the mid to late 1980s and in 1994 a new constitution along with a non-white majority in government marked an end to Apartheid in South Africa.

Similar to South Africa, the struggle for the Palestineans in the Middle East has been a long one full of oppression from the Israeli side no matter what form of resistance is used against the Israeli government. Nonviolence has been prevalent in Palestinian resistance even before the issue of Israeli occupation. During the late 1930s, resistance to the British empire by Palestinians consisted of protests, strikes, and diplomatic petitions. Several decades after the formation of Israel (1948) a movement began where large portions of the Palestinian population acted in civil disobedience against the Israeli government. This event would come to be known as the First Intifada (1987).

During the Intifada, the people took nonviolent actions in large groups. Examples of these actions include: staging sit-ins, blocking roads, burning tires, having large demonstrations. The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) even classified over 95% of the activities as nonviolent. It was during the First Intifada when a champion for nonviolence would emerge within the Palestinian community. Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian Christian who had studied notable figures in the field of nonviolence (MLK, Gandhi, Gene Sharp) became a major organizer during the Intifada. Awad translated into Arabic the work of those thinkers and wrote and distributed pamphlets in Arabic on the subject of nonviolent non-cooperation and nonviolent theory all over the West Bank. Mubarak’s actions got him put on notice by the Israeli authorities and eventually resulted in his deportation. He helped promote nonviolent actions that would be in direct opposition to Israeli control of Palestinians. Planting olive trees in potential sites for new Israeli settlements, flying the Palestinian flag, directly opposing curfews, not presenting IDs, were just some of the actions Mubarak Awad helped promote. Unfortunately, unlike Apartheid in South Africa, the Palestinian struggle has lasted for much longer. To this day, the Palestineans continue to be subject to the oppressive, illegal policies of the Israeli government. The Intifada was able to make some progress in terms of having all sides of this conflict come together and attempt to really negotiate a deal for the first time.

Even though Israel has forbidden his return to Palestine, Mubarak Awad continues to advocate for nonviolence in Palestine and wherever in the world there is a similar struggle for civil and human rights through his organization that he has started in the U.S.A. in Washington, D.C., called Nonviolence International. It is interesting to note that his nephew, Sami Awad has continued his efforts in Palestine through the Holy Land Trust based in Bethlehem.

Nonviolence in Academia and in the 21st Century

Today, there exists a vast academic field in nonviolence based on theory and the experiences/ analysis of notable events that occurred during the 20th Century. Researchers and scholars during the 20th century helped create the academic field of nonviolence to compliment the direct work being performed in real life settings. One of the best known and influential scholars on nonviolence is Gene Sharp. Sharp was an American political scientist who protested the Korean War by not participating in the draft and spending time in prison.

It was afterwards, when he went to go and study in Oslo, that Sharp got very involved in studying nonviolence (specifically how teachers in Norway resisted against fascist education). Sharp went on to receive a Doctorate from Oxford University and in 1973, published a three volume work called “The Politics of Nonviolent Action”. It was in one of these volumes where he wrote 198 Methods of Nonviolent Actions, a groundbreaking work that is still referenced to this day and only recently has been updated for modern times. (Nonviolence International will be publishing a book on over 300 methods in 2021). Gene listed and wrote in detail 198 different ways people can perform nonviolent acts. Sharp is also credited for moving the work of Gandhi outside of religion and ethics courses and into political science and sociology departments. Institutes and other organizations are now active in promoting the theory of nonviolent philosophy. His writings are still used as training for nonviolent activists around the world even after his passing in 2018 and were cited in movements around the world over several decades.

Here is a short list of the organizations working to promote nonviolence worldwide.

Following Sharp’s inspiring example, other activists have gone on to create other institutes to promote the nonviolent philosophy for the younger generations. One example is the James Lawson Institute. This institute was created by Civil Rights activist James Lawson in collaboration with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) as a way for American activists and organizers to learn nonviolent disobedience. James Lawson personally was a major force in the American Civil Rights movement who worked personally with Dr. King.

The Center for Nonviolent Communications was created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg and specializes specifically in nonviolent communications as a way to improve communications resulting in improved relationships, project planning and problem-solving. According to Rosenberg, nonviolent communications emphasizes a very positive view of human nature, and that an authentic human connection can overcome almost all problems, conflicts and obstacles. Thus, in essence, human behavior is based on common needs, and thus only optimized nonviolent communications are needed to make the most of the best that humanity has to give and thus overcome conflict and obstacles, and establish true human relations and intimacy. Thus Rosenberg’s organization teaches techniques and philosophy for optimizing communications that he pioneered for realizing the full potential of human relationship and life.

Another organization created by a nonviolent activist is Nonviolence International (or NVI). This international non-profit organization was founded by Mubarak Awad in the late 1980’s as a way to promote nonviolence around the world and to continue spreading the nonviolent philosophy he taught protesters in Palestine and to others willing to learn about nonviolence. Granted special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (Eco-Soc), NVI works with other Nonprofits and Nongovernmental Organizations (NGO) within UN Civil Society in such events as NGO-CSW and the HLPF. The NVI website contains many resources such as webinar series, training manuals, position papers, videos and backgrounders on UN-related events. One notable project from Nonviolence is an updated version of Gene Sharps 198 Methods of Nonviolent Actions by CEO Michael Beer. An academic in the field of nonviolence himself, Beer has trained many activists around the world (Tibet, USA, Thailand, etc.) on the practice of nonviolence. This book and online database exceeds the original 198 to over 300 nonviolent tactics as a result of Michael Beer’s extensive research which adds modern tactics better suited for this day and age.

The Martin Luther King jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University is where Martin Luther King’s nonviolent philosophy is provided open and free to the public for research and education. With the blessings of King’s wife, Coretta King, the institute holds the King Papers, being digitized into an online database years in the making (still not complete) this collection is a project with the goal of collecting all of MLKs writings (published and unpublished) in one database, and making it freely available to all to inspire and guide future social improvement and human rights work. Thus, many primary sources on MLK speeches, sermons and other writings are now freely available to the public.

Started by the Gandhi-King Foundation located in Hyderabad, India, and now based at the MLK Research and Education Institute in Stanford University, is the Gandhi-King Global Initiative. Beginning in October 2019 (the 150th anniversary of Gandhi's birthday), a large international conference was held to commemorate the event and served as the first big event of the global initiative. The purpose of the Gandhi-King Global Initiative is to create an international network of activists who aspire to continue advocating for nonviolence and international collaboration. Currently including almost 100 members in the global network, including family members of Gandhi, King, Chavez, Mandela, and staff of Awad’s organization, GKGI strives to utilize the latest in online and communications technology to encourage communications, cooperation and collaboration amongst it’s members and others to create online and in the world events (before and after the COVID-19 pandemic of course) promoting peace, justice, equality and nonviolence and celebrate diversity.

The Albert Einstein Institution was founded by nonviolent scholar Gene Sharp in 1983. The institution operated out of Gene’s home in East Boston, as a way to focus on “pragmatic nonviolent struggle”. Much of Gene Sharps publications, which includes 20 books, are available at the Einstein Institutes website. Sharp picked Einstein as the name given that he had come into contact with Einstein himself early in his life and in his career as an advocate of nonviolence. Sharp was arrested when he protested the Korean War draft and wrote a letter to Einstein - and the physicist agreed and responded back to Sharp in support of his antiwar stance. The institution holds workshops, consultations, conferences and more.

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (or ICNC) is a non-profit, educational foundation that provides resources on civil resistance for people around the world and from different backgrounds. Since its formation in 2002, scholars, activists, NGOs, policy analysts are among the groups welcomed to use the ICNC for learning more on nonviolence since 2002. Grants for researchers are also provided by the center as well. As mentioned earlier, the James Lawson Institute was formed in part thanks to the ICNC. From a resource library full of articles, to films and translated writings, the ICNC serves as an international library of nonviolence.


The nonviolence movements that went on during the 20th century laid the groundwork for the modern academic and organized field seen today. People who participated in different movements like Mubarak Awad in Palestine and James Lawson in the United States went on to set up institutes and organizations to continue promoting the nonviolence they learned. Thus their organizations publish works based on nonviolence and teach activists the same nonviolent tactics they learned during their time as activists in the streets of Palestine and America. Gandhi’s work in South Africa and successful campaign for Indian independence inspired Martin Luther King, Lawson and Cesar Chavez to implement that nonviolent philosophy in America. Thanks to Gene Sharp, the writings and actions of Gandhi were exposed to a much larger academic audience in America. That led to countless American students (to this day) learning about one of the best nonviolent campaigns and practitioners, ensuring Gandhi’s philosophy lives on in the minds of generations to come. Sharp's own work has been cited in countries around the world as a tool for combatting oppressive regimes. The Suffrage Parade, the first large, peaceful organized protest in D.C was planned by women challenging the incoming president to give them equal rights.Since then, countless other groups have taken action to march nonviolently across the capital as an open symbol of nonviolent civil disobedience. Today, younger generations can look back at these historic movements and continue the fundamental mission of using nonviolence to tackle injustice. In some cases being taught by the same activists from that period or the students/colleagues of those activists. All the institutes, resource websites and nonprofits aligned with nonviolence have ensured that the work of all those activists in the 20th century can also serve as a knowledge hub for those seeking a way of learning more on the nonviolent philosophy.


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