Erin Pineda, Assistant Professor of Government, Smith College
Implicitly or explicitly, the constitutional nation state frames many accounts of civil disobedience — defining the animating principle behind disobedient demands, and setting the outer limits on permissible forms of action. This is particularly true of accounts that center the US Civil Rights Movement, through which activists pressed their rights claims in terms of constitutional principle and founding ideals. Yet this domestic presumption – the national and constitutional boundedness of the claims made by civil disobedience – renders invisible (or perhaps irrelevant) an entire geography of imaginative claim-making that centered on the connections between Jim Crow and colonialism, and that constructed nonviolent resistance as a particular kind of response to white supremacy’s specific forms of domination. This talk charts the movement of ideas about civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action as they traveled between the United States, India, South Africa, and Ghana through four decades of the twentieth century. I argue that the receptiveness of African American civil rights activists to the means of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience was crucially informed by the deployment of nonviolence in the midst of anticolonial struggles around the world, and perceptions about its potential efficacy as a means of self-emancipation and colonial liberation. Between 1920 and 1960, the idea of nonviolent resistance was in “imaginative transit” across disparate contexts, as African Americans, Indians, South Africans, and Ghanaians explored the relationship between systems of colonialism and segregation, and found common cause in waging nonviolence against local instantiations of a global white supremacy. Through these years, activists cultivated an imagination of civil disobedience as decolonizing praxis, and readily mobilized a language of self-liberation from white supremacy’s structures of fear and violence – a language effectively erased when domestic constitutionalism is the only plausible framework for comprehending the idea of civil rights disobedience.