OPINION PIECE: Race Wars and Peaceful Protests: an Intersectional Profile of Social Change

I apologize. The second Thursday of the month is usually dedicated to local history topics. Today’s planned topic was segregation and civil rights in Tennessee. However, this topic is more thoroughly reviewed here and I feel I couldn’t do a much better job than they’ve done.

Today’s post is instead inspired by the patterns I noticed while researching for this article. This is not meant to be an endorsement of any sort of method of social change. Simply, it is an examination of the differing methods whereby social change has come about.


The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing.
— Booker T. Washington
By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creater with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
— W.E.B. Du Bois

My first thoughts on the differing ideologies for social change came when studying Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Both strove for the betterment of African-Americans after Emancipation. However, they had different methods for doing so. Washington believed that the appeasement of white men would, over time, earn the black man an improved status. If the black man could prove himself as a civilized member of society… if he could “play ball,” then he could be granted rights by the white man. (During this time, civil rights were primarily pursued for black men as women’s rights were still far away.) He called for compromise, which would, realistically, earn black men more opportunity. He offered the acceptance of white superiority in exchange for white support of black education. Safe. Peaceful. Realistic.

W.E.B. Du Bois did not want the future of the black race placed into the hands of the whites. Du Bois did advocate for peace, but he wanted power over black men firmly in the hands of black men. While Washington encouraged African-Americans to compromise, Du Bois eschewed it. Washington believed small changes would lead to changes in society, given time.  Revolutionaries like Du Bois, however, are idealistic. They look at the big picture. They cannot toil in progressive, but almost insignificant, actions. They cannot accept anything short of their visions for the future. 


I am not guilty. I am going to die and I have no fear to die. God bless you all.
— Ed Johnson, just before he was lynched.
We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.
— Malcolm X

I don’t like the word militant. It has a negative connotation. I’ve seen it used to describe W.E.B. Du Bois because he wasn’t willing to bow his head and accept compromise. I reject that resistance is militancy. I also reject that notion that nothing is won through militancy. Here I use pacifist to mean “passive resistance.” Activists resist, yes, and prove their point through action. But these actions are non-aggressive in nature. Pacifists may fast in protest. They may participate in sit-ins. They are the activists who don’t move to the back of the bus, who march through the streets, who sit at a whites-only lunch counter. They resist, but they don’t fight back. These are the actions of the pacifist. The ideology of a pacifist is also non-aggressive in nature and probably the most important identifier of a pacifist. Pacifists argue for equality. Pacifists wish to enact social change by elevating the unequal to become equal.

Militants make their point through a show of force and aggression. This doesn’t necessarily mean they take up arms and participate in acts of violence. Many times, this militancy is a militancy of thought. Militants use aggressive ideology, such as black supremacy. Militants wish to enact social change by elevating the unequal above the other and by pushing the oppressor down. Militant ideology is to argue for the opposing ideology of the current social environment. In action, militants are willing to meet aggression with aggression. Militants are more willing to use a show of force. Race riots and the like are results of militant thinking, but that does not mean all militancy is violent.

Incremental Pacifist: One Step at a Time

Incremental Pacifists believe change comes about through changing minds – even if it is only one at a time. It’s an internally-focused revolution: show them why you deserve to be equal through your actions. It is a change of accepting compromises and it has its place in social change. It is more slow and submissive and puts the power primarily in the hands of the oppressing power. 

Incremental Militant: Breaking Barriers

Incremental Militants are usually the holders of aggressive ideologies and are willing to be confrontational in daily pursuance of rights. They may carry guns for protection, expecting violence to be carried out against them. Or they may react in violence to infringement on their safety or rights. They may believe in supremacist ideas (with regards to the Civil Rights Movement, black supremacy).  Through incremental militant actions, one makes it clear to those around them that they will not be silenced. 

Revolutionary Pacifist: Peaceful Protest

Revolutionary Pacifists are usually regarded as martyrs. (Unlike Incremental Pacifists, who are usually forgotten with the passage of time, if they were ever noticed at all.) They demonstrate their beliefs in non-violent ways so as to reveal the oppressive force they rally against. Non-violent protests can be self-sacrificing particularly when the oppressive force reacts with violence. 

Revolutionary Militant: Forcible Change

Where Revolutionary Pacifists believe in “turning the other cheek,” Revolutionary Militants believe in “an eye for an eye.” They are aggressive in their pursuit of their oppositional ideologies and this sometimes leads to violence.