American Civil Rights: Robert Parris Moses and Soul-force

Robert Parris Moses of the SNCC during a Freedom Ride training (Thanks to for the photo).

I was going to define the idea of civil rights in my next couple of posts, but with this being Martin Luther King Jr. day, I decided to talk a little bit about one of my favorite activists and touch on the concept of “soul-force”.

There’s a story of Bob Moses, a SNCC volunteer. He was in a southern town attempting to register African-Americans to vote. He was on his way to the registrar’s office with two other African-Americans when his way was blocked by the town’s white sheriff and a few other men.

According to the story,  the sheriff refused to let Moses pass and drove his knife handle into Moses’ head and beat him nearly senseless. Moses did not fight back and he apparently had an out-of-body experience and watched the beating from above. After the sheriff stopped with the beating, Moses stumbled to the registrar’s office with the help of another man, not wanting to give up his mission despite the setback.

Soon rumors circulated within the civil rights movement that Moses had prayed for his attackers while being beaten, saying “Forgive them for they know not what they do”. 

While the part of the story  that portrays Moses praying was probably nothing more than a rumor, it does speak to the larger reality of the success of the practical application of non-violent resistance.  Many of the African-Americans involved in the non-violent approach to civil rights managed to maintain their philosophy throughout the fire of severe testing.

Moses went on to continue his leadership in the grassroots mission of aiding African-American suffrage throughout the 1960’s and, despite being a frequent target of violence and oppression, continued to practice non-violence successfully.

The story also illustrates the impact behind the actions of those involved in the non-violent demonstrations. Martin Luther King referred to the force of the resistors as “soul-force”, a concept that came out of Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha.

The idea of soul-force is that the moral rightness of the non-violent resistor’s actions is a change agent in and of itself. If the soldiers of non-violence peacefully commit their acts of civil disobedience and  continue to demonstrate agape love toward their oppressors, the justice of their actions will overcome any inherent evil in both the oppressors themselves, and in  the immoral social norms that are being upheld and justified by the laws of the society.


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