The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice


Collective commitment to the goals of a social movement and the willingness to sacrifice time, effort, and self-interest in pursuit of group goals. Solidarity entails a sense of shared fate, of collective identity, of concern for the welfare of fellow movement activists. In a nonviolent movement, solidarity implies a group commitment to nonviolent means of achieving collective goals and protecting one’s fellow activists.

Movement groups are usually not-for-profit entities that do not have the material resources to hire large numbers of employees. Instead they must depend on volunteer recruits who believe in the urgency of the movement cause and are willing to sacrifice their personal welfare for that cause. They must persuade people to give up their daily round of activities for a time in order to devote themselves to movement activities. This often means sacrificing time at work, at play, or in one’s family for the cause. Unless the movement activists convince potential recruits of the urgency of the cause, the movement will not grow.

Caring about the cause is not enough. People care about a lot of issues; they usually act to try to solve problems only when they believe such actions will work. This gives nonviolent movements several additional tasks. They must convince potential participants that the normal operation of social institutions will not solve the problem they are concerned about. This task may require that the movement first attempt to deal with the issue through normal institutional processes. If this fails, the movement must then convince recruits that nonviolent tactics such as sit-ins, boycotts, marches, and forms of civil disobedience will advance the movement toward the realization of its goals.

Participants express solidarity with a nonviolent movement when they believe in the urgency of the cause and in the effectiveness of nonviolent means of promoting that cause. Movement leaders use a variety of methods of promoting this kind of solidarity; because of the precariousness of the mobilization of any movement, they must do this throughout the entire process of movement development. There are at least three key factors in the promotion of solidarity in a nonviolent movement: (1) the creation of a small core group of activists in a haven, a social setting isolated from the elite target; (2) educational efforts designed to convince potential movement recruits of the urgency of the cause; and (3) the willingness of leaders and participants to suffer repressive acts by the targets of protest.

Students at Michigan State University protest in solidarity with the people of Egypt, February 2011Movements often have their origins among small groups of like-minded people. Commitment to a particular issue or set of issues often emerges among such groups in social settings isolated from decision-making elites. These havens or free social spaces are pockets of critical thinking where people question rationalizing ideologies. They are meeting places where people can talk about their common problems without having to defer to the ideological pronouncements of those in power. Already existing political groups may not be the best settings for such critical thinking because such groups often must accept the legitimacy of the system in order to gain advantages within it. Such critical thinking is more likely in non-bureaucratic informal group settings. All societies, no matter how totalitarian, have potential sites of such critical thinking and planning. Examples include block clubs and tenant associations in the community, bars, and saloons in the labor movement, student lounges and hangouts, and women’s consciousness-raising groups.

Havens such as southern black churches and colleges were crucial to the mobilization of the U.S. civil rights movement. A great sense of solidarity and empowerment came out of these black institutions and grew under the impact of black urbanization in the post-World War II period. The church provided protected meeting places where tactics and strategies could be planned in a setting isolated from the repressive actions of white elites. Black ministers preached a gospel of black liberation from the yoke of segregation and provided much of the leadership of the movement. Whites could not fire the insurgent leaders of black-owned and controlled institutions. Members of black congregations were the crucial source for recruitment into the movement rank and file.

Southern black colleges were also havens for the development of a critical consciousness regarding segregation. Students were also free of pressure from white employers and generally did not have families dependent on them. Campuses were closely knit socially with excellent opportunities for communication; consciousness of racism and how to fight it spread quickly throughout the network of black colleges. Black college students ultimately had an extraordinarily high level of participation in the sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, and other activities of the southern civil rights movement.

Generating solidarity in a small isolated group is no prescription for political success. In order to be effective, such groups must communicate their perspective, their analysis of injustice, to a larger circle of potential supporters. People are not likely to become active in a movement unless they understand in some depth the issues of concern to that movement. Movement activists often design educational events in order to get potential activists to understand the injustices being addressed by the movement.

A good example is the teach-ins that were so important to the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam War movement. The idea was to generate intensive discussion of the escalating U.S. war in Southeast Asia. Forty-nine faculty members at the University of Michigan organized the first teach-in on March 24, 1965. Three thousand attended the event, which focused student attention on the issue and convinced many of them of the urgency of the Vietnam War issue. Columbia University, the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, the University of Wisconsin, and Harvard subsequently held teach-ins. They were designed as educational events, and not as straightforward attempts to recruit into the antiwar movement; however, many of those who attended the teach-ins probably joined the struggle against the war. Some of the most active campuses in the antiwar movement were those where teach-ins had been held. College campuses are not the only sites of such educational events; community activists often sponsor candidates’ forums where housing or poverty issues are discussed; women’s groups hold discussions on rape and battered women; environmental groups educate about threats to the ecological balance.

One of the ways in which movement leaders persuade others to sacrifice for the cause is to do so themselves. The example of self-sacrifice convinces others that the cause must be urgent and important. It makes formerly uninvolved bystanders pay attention to the issue; they believe that people would not sacrifice their own welfare or even their lives unless the cause they were fighting for was an important one. Promoting solidarity is not simply a matter of arguing a position; it’s a matter of putting oneself on the line, of demonstrating to people that the issue is an urgent, crucial one that is deserving of their time, energy, and sacrifice. Participation in risky protest indicates that there is a group of people who are so concerned about an issue that they are willing to risk their own welfare — through arrest, physical injury, or even death — for their cause. Repression of a nonviolent movement often draws attention to the injustices the movement is fighting against and persuades bystanders to choose sides. The growing circle of solidarity becomes the key to movement success. Nonviolent movements strive to make this circle include even the targets of their protest, to achieve the beloved community.

Students at Columbia University protest in solidarity with the people of South Africa, 1985A good example is the 1980s anti-apartheid movement at Columbia University. The movement, led by the Coalition for a Free South Africa (CFSA), called for divestment by Columbia University of all stocks in companies doing business in South Africa. In 1982 and 1983 the CFSA held workshops, sponsored forums with speakers from the African National Congress, organized antiapartheid rallies, started a petition drive, and testified at university senate hearings on divestment. When the university’s trustees rejected a unanimous vote for divestment by the university senate, the CFSA organized a nonviolent protest. The students chained shut the doors of the major Columbia College classroom and administration building, Hamilton Hall (later renamed Mandela Hall), and blocked the entrance with their bodies. Hundreds of students soon joined this blockade because they saw it as a powerful way to show their outrage, to get the trustees and others to pay more attention to the apartheid issue.

Most of those on the blockade believed they would be arrested immediately on the first day of the protest. However, they were not arrested and the costs of participation in the blockade soon began to rise. The severe sacrifices involved included facing cold, rain, and lack of sleep, getting sick and losing study time. The most important threat was to the protesters’ academic careers; the administration threatened to suspend or expel them from Columbia. But rather than ending the protest, the threat of disciplinary action increased its strength. The common threat forced the blockaders to draw together for protection; it gave them a powerful sense of common fate.

As the threats raised the stakes, those uncertain about the divestment issue and the blockade tactic felt compelled to make a decision and to choose to defend the blockaders or to support the administration’s position. More and more people on and off campus focused their attention and activity on the issues of apartheid and divestment. This resulted in further opportunities for the generation of solidarity. The students distributed more fliers, sponsored more speeches by civil rights activists, and participated in more campus discussions on South Africa.

Hundreds of individuals and organizations sent statements of support to the protesters including representatives from Harlem community groups and churches, faculty members, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the African National Congress and the United Nations, Jesse Jackson, several labor unions, civil rights leaders, and elected officials from New York City. Students on other campuses — including Berkeley, Rutgers, Cornell, Wisconsin, the State University of New York, and the City University of New York — began to engage in similar actions. This support legitimized the protest and encouraged the blockaders to continue it to keep the growing struggle alive. The growing circle of solidarity with the divestment movement led to its success; the Columbia trustees divested in September of 1985.

Eric L. Hirsch, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Solidarity
  • Hirsch, Eric L. “Sacrifice for the Cause: Group Processes, Recruitment, and Commitment in a Student Social Movement.” American Sociological Review 55 (April 1990): 243-254.
  • Morris, Aldon. The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Free Press, 1984.
  • Zaroulis, Nancy, and Gerald Sullivan. Who Spoke Up? American Protest against the War in Vietnam 1963-1975. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1984.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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