Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History (Third Edition)

Edited by Staughton Lynd and Alice Lynd. Orbis Books, 2018. 456 pages. $50/paperback.

This is the third edition of a classic, indispensable collection, which was first published in 1966. The second edition appeared in 1995.

The introduction alone in this most recent volume should be required reading for all Friends, if not all Americans. It recounts the history of nonviolence in our country, beginning with early Friends, the abolitionist movement, the progressive period, conscientious objectors in both world wars, and the labor movement between the wars. It then addresses writings that are concerned with nonviolent direct action, including the Civil Rights Movement. Finally, we have what the editors call a period of “new times [and] new ideas”: the Vietnam War era and various environmental concerns, along with the Sanctuary Movement and efforts to assist refugees.

The essays collected here are organized into chronological chunks, and they contain many of the classic writings you might expect. Authors in the “Beginnings” section include William Penn and John Woolman, Henry David Thoreau (“Civil Disobedience”), and William James’s seminal work “The Moral Equivalent of War.” The section “Practicing Nonviolence” begins with A.J. Muste’s recounting of the 1919 textile workers strike in Lawrence, Mass.

Of particular interest to me are the essays regarding the experiences of conscientious objectors (COs) during World War II, the war many if not most Americans consider our last “good war” (if there is ever such a thing): COs’ stories are frequently omitted from any discussion of that conflict. This section, which introduces the idea of nonviolent direct action, features a fascinating selection of writings from the Civil Rights era, as varied as an essay by Robert Moses to statements of protest from high school students to Martin Luther King Jr.’s classic “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” There are also pieces by Catholic social justice advocates such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Helen Prejean (best known perhaps for her book on capital punishment, Dead Man Walking).

“New Times, New Ideas” begins with essays about “nonviolent revolution,” including David Dellinger’s controversial essay on the Cuban revolution from 1965. There is a substantial set of writings from the Vietnam War period, including the famous “Statement of the Catonsville Nine,” excerpts from various antiwar pamphlets, writings by soldiers who opposed the war, and “Just and Unjust Wars” by historian and activist Howard Zinn. There is a heartbreaking selection of “Letters to The Wall,” taken from a published collection of letters written in response to the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Finally, there are writings concerning vital environmental issues, such as the fight over the Seabrook, N.H. nuclear power plant in the 1970s, and the most recent works added, those about the anti-pipeline activism at Standing Rock in North and South Dakota.

This carefully curated collection is a wonderful, diverse overview of a topic that is at the heart of Quaker history and theology. It will be a vital resource for research, and it’s a must-have for any meeting or Friends school library, or for anyone interested in the topic.

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