The Importance of Peaceful Protests

On February 27, Hamilton was fortunate to host Diane Nash, one of the most influential civil rights activists of her time, for an address in the chapel. As a student in Nashville, she helped organize lunch counter sit-ins and worked with both the Freedom Riders and the Selma Movement.

Of the many lessons and experiences Nash shared with the Hamilton community, one stood out in particular: the importance of peaceful protest. She emphasized that had protests turned violent, the civil rights movement would not have been nearly as successful. In the context of the current political climate, it is important to listen to Nash’s words and reflect on them.  

At college campuses across the United States, too many protests are not peaceful, and one wonders if that trend will worsen. In early February, individuals at the University of California-Berkeley caused more than $100,000 in arson damages while protesting the controversial journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, who was forced to cancel his speaking engagement due to concern for his safety. Damaging campus buildings and threatening the life of the speaker are not constructive ways to demonstrate opposition to an event. Engaging in such savagery not only endangers people, but is bad for the university’s – and its students’ – reputation. The same university that is famous for its 1960s protests over free speech seems now to be an enemy of free speech.

More recently, violent protesters at Middlebury College – a fellow NESCAC school – injured a professor as she tried to protect guest speaker Charles Murray from harm. After giving his speech, Murray found a mob of angry protesters waiting for him outside the McCullough Student Center. It is sickening to think that these students attacked a professor of their own college simply because they did not agree with the politics of the speaker she brought to campus.

Toward the end of her talk at Hamilton, a student asked Nash how she felt about the situation at Standing Rock in the Dakotas, and how people can protest peacefully when there are weapons and other threats present. In response, Nash said she understood that kind of situation very well: She had lived it while protesting in the South. She noted that when a group stoops to the level of violence, their protests have less of an impact. In contrast, Nash argued, the courage and valor it takes to remain strong yet peaceful while being threatened and insulted make a much more powerful statement.

Imagine that this had been the situation at either of these two campuses. Instead of waking up to news about a professor being hospitalized or a building going up in flames, we would wake up to news about students who proudly exercised their First Amendment rights by standing up against what they believed was wrong. Freedom of speech and the ability to peacefully protest are part of what makes being an American so special. So instead of taking up violence, let us become a country of speech, as Nash and her fellow peaceful activists would want.