Challenges of Change Panel 4: Claiming Our Rights Through Nonviolent Movement-Building (video, English)

Challenges of Change Panel 4: Claiming Our Rights Through Nonviolent Movement-Building (video, English)

Resource Type
Event Recording
Publication Year
English (US)





This video presents the fourth panel discussion from Challenges of Change: Religion, Secularism & Rights, a WLP conference.

Carolyn Long, panel chair and director of Global Partnerships at InterAction, says the next step for South African anti-apartheid activists is to take on patriarchal traditions in the face of abuse while remaining nonviolent. She introduces a videotaped statement from Pregs Govender, deputy chair of the South African Human Rights Commission and former member of Parliament.

Govender affirms the need to remember the beauty of the world and life during struggle, using the power of love and courage. South Africa’s constitution is excellent but domestic violence and inequality persist, along with practices like virginity tests and the objectification of women. In fighting apartheid, “We didn’t engage the patriarchy into which it was embedded.”

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund and recipient in 2000 of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, says movement success comes in layers, like peeling back an artichoke, and requires many different skills and approaches. “A movement takes lots of different seeds, as you never know which ones are going to sprout.” Black soldiers fought in World War II for freedoms they could not enjoy at home. Activist A. Philip Randolph made that case to Franklin Roosevelt, who told him, “Go on and make me do it.” That is, create the public pressure that alone moves legislation. The result was a multi-decade strategy of targeted lawsuits “by poor folks with poor lawyers” to undermine legal apartheid. Multiple plaintiffs ensured that some courageous few would remain after threats, violence and intimidation made others drop out. The suits challenged segregation not just in schools but in towns, libraries, water fountains, bus seats, lunch counters and other fronts, culminating in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned the “separate but equal” fiction underlying racial apartheid.

The requirements for successful activism include strong spiritual roots in which activists share stories and comfort and support each other; a few mentors for affirmation and encouragement; and non-violence training, for the personal discipline that “came with the knowledge that what we were doing was right and just and we were prepared to die for it.”

Young people’s dedication and determination may be key: children of 6 and 7 “stood up to fire hoses and filled the Birmingham (Alabama) jails and couldn’t even pronounce ‘freedom.’” The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for all its influence and renown, never numbered more than 200 people; its relatively radical program helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. win over critics in the mainstream civil rights organizations that had opposed him as too radical until SNCC came along.

Laws on the U.S. books, however, have not translated into real racial equality. Schools are re-segregating, 80 percent of black and Hispanic youngsters cannot read or compute at grade level, and a black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of being jailed during his lifetime: “the cradle-to-prison pipeline.” 

And the situation now is far more complicated for women than it was for blacks in the 1960s. King was prescient: he said the civil rights movement might be “buying into a dying house” of American culture because of growing militarism and fear of change. Some people now cannot stand the facts of a black president and a majority-minority population. “It is a very dangerous time” as women and young people seek to become a new grassroots movement for human rights worldwide.

Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of Women’s Learning Partnership and former Minister for Women’s Affairs in Iran, says the U.S. civil rights movement inspired the women’s movement in Iran. Leaders of the “One Million Signatures for Reform of Discriminatory Laws” campaign were persecuted like U.S. leaders, jailed for long terms on trumped-up charges, and exiled. Those leaders are now scattered, but the movement has still spread throughout the population and is awaiting an opening to resurface. A century ago, the Constitutional Revolution started a tradition of mobilization and consciousness-raising. By 1970 Iran was among the region’s most advanced nations and moving toward more rights for all; but Khomeini’s first act upon his takeover in 1979 was to nullify laws on women. The first demonstration opposing him was also by women.

In 2005 the signature campaign sought to reform laws allowing polygamy and denying women rights to travel, marry or work at will. WLP invited 10 Iranian women leaders to strategize with Moroccan activist women at a conference in Thailand. Then the campaign made pragmatic use of available space: kitchen table discussions, door-to-door canvassing, community-level debates, Internet and social media messaging. They argued that religion is a key part of a person, like home or family, and like them does not have to be a particular A or B or C; it can and should include women’s rights. 

The process of a campaign is more important than the end result because the solidarity makes any failure feel bearable and temporary. The 2009 election was a farce, a fake choice among three hand-picked candidates, for example, but rather than boycott it, the signature campaign used it to demonstrate by the millions, affirm nonviolent demands and be visible with their signs and green clothing. The chance for real change will come again.


Afkhami suggests that social activists set goals by considering what the world ought to look like and how it should operate, without reference to traditional liberal or conservative philosophies. Information now spreads ideas viraly worldwide much faster than civil rights ideals spread from the United States to Iran, Malaysia and elsewhere. “We have the unusual opportunity in an age of communication to take the best of our experiences forward to a world of opportunity that we will define.”

Long observes that there is no magic to the creation of a movement: “It is hard work, it is challenging, it is dangerous, and it never ends.” Asked to advise the young women present, Edelman suggests they attend meetings like this one, learn from history, and perhaps become interns in the Freedom Schools her organization has helped establish, to help  minority children envision a better future.
Afkhami says victims’ passivity in the face of injustice comes from fear or hopelessness or a sense of being irrelevant and powerless, so that finding ways to help create a feeling of personal agency is critical. First one can change oneself, then the family, then the community, then the nation and the world.

Edelman notes that ending apartheid did not solve all of South Africa’s problems, and everyone must decide for themselves how much they are prepared to risk, and for which of a movement’s goals. These will change as the movement grows, but nonviolent movements must reject coalitions with violent groups. “There is a constant readjustment” of allies but a movement should not be so inclusive as to lose its focus and wind up meaning everything and therefore nothing. 

Edelman rejects the stereotype of the 1960s as a decade of self-indulgence and drug-hazed dropouts; “My 1960s was not self-indulgent; it was spiritually grounded and very disciplined and hard-working.” U.S. religion is now being misused by the “prosperity gospel” and silence over Catholic abuses. Afkhami added that interfaith alliances can be built with discussions over texts and comparisons of goals.

Runtime: 01:06:10


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