Martin Luther King Jr’s advice to us about using violence to reform America

Summary: One of our greatest tools in the struggle to reform America is our history, its ability to inform and inspire us. National holiday’s point to some of these people, so that we can not only celebrate their accomplishments but als0 learn from them. Among those most appropriate for us today is Martin Luther King.  His courage, his ability to lead and recall us to our core beliefs, all put him among our greatest leaders. Here we look at one aspect of his work.

Martin Luther King and company
Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, their wives, & the Abernathy children leading a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Wikimedia Commons/Abernathy Family

The dozens of posts on the FM website about reforming America have covered many aspects of building and running a reform movement. One policy of great importance concerns the use of violence. American reform movements have often used violence, almost always (perhaps always) unsuccessfully. Yet the love of violence has deep roots in our culture, seen in our many wars (mostly successful) and frequent state-sponsored political violence (mostly successful, against minorities, unions, etc).

Rev King’s leadership encouraged the civil rights movement to avoid this dark path (against great provocation), and take the moral high ground that has so often proved decisive in US history. Today’s reading describes this history. It worked for them, and can work for us today.

Excerpt from “When Martin Luther King gave up his guns

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler.
From Waging Nonviolence, 15 January 2014.
Posted here courtesy of their Creative Commons license.

A personal conversion.

The 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the campaign that first established King’s national reputation, was not planned in advance as a Gandhian-style campaign of nonviolent resistance. At the time, King would not have had a clear sense of the strategic principles behind such a campaign. Rather, the bus boycott came together quickly in the wake of Rosa Park’s arrest in late 1955, taking inspiration from a similar action in Baton Rouge in 1953.

… Soon he was receiving phone calls on which unidentified voices warned, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” After such threats resulted in the bombing of King’s home in February 1956, armed watchmen guarded against further assassination attempts.

This response reflected King’s still-tentative embrace of the theory and practice of nonviolence. In his talks before mass meetings, King preached the Christian injunction to “love thy enemy.” Having read Thoreau in college, he described the bus boycott as an “act of massive noncooperation” and regularly called for “passive resistance.” But King did not use the term “nonviolence,” and he admitted that he knew little about Gandhi or the Indian independence leader’s campaigns.


Martin Luther King on nonviolence

As King biographer Taylor Branch notes, out-of-state visitors who were knowledgeable about the principles of unarmed direct action — such as Rev. Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Bayard Rustin of the War Resisters League — reported that King and other Montgomery activists were “at once gifted and unsophisticated in nonviolence.”

… He and King stayed up late that night arguing about whether armed self-defense in the home could end up damaging the movement. While today’s NRA members might prefer to forget, it was not long before King had come around to the position advocated by groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Smiley would make visits to Montgomery throughout King’s remaining four years there, and the civil rights leader’s politics would be shaped by many more late-night conversations.

In 1959, at the invitation of the Gandhi National Memorial Fund, King made a pilgrimage to India to study the principles of satyagraha, and he was moved by the experience. Ultimately, he never embraced the complete pacifism of A. J. Muste; later, in the Black Power years, King made a distinction between people using guns to defend themselves in the home and the question of “whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized protest.” But, for himself, King claimed nonviolence as a “way of life,” and he maintained his resolve under conditions that would make many others falter.

In September 1962, when King was addressing a convention, a 200-pound white man, the 24-year-old American Nazi Party member Roy James, jumped onto the stage and struck the clergyman in the face. King responded with a level of courage that made a lifelong impression on many of those in the audience. One of them, storied educator and activist Septima Clark, described how King dropped his hands “like a newborn baby” and spoke calmly to his attacker. King made no effort to protect himself even as he was knocked backwards by further blows. Later, after his aides had pulled the assailant away, he talked to the young man behind the stage and insisted that he would not press charges.

Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King, Jr., letter opener in his chest, after he was stabbed in Harlem.

The road to Birmingham.

… Martin Luther King did embrace strategic nonviolence in its most robust and radical form — and this produced the historic confrontations at Birmingham and Selma. But it is important to remember that these came years after his initial baptism into political life in Montgomery, and that they might easily not have happened at all.

… Following the successful bus boycott, King sought out ways to spread the Montgomery model throughout the South. He knew that there existed strategists who had immersed themselves in the theory and practice of broad-scale confrontation, but he acknowledged that this organizing tradition had yet to take root in the civil rights movement.

In early 1957, King met James Lawson, a savvy student of unarmed resistance who had spent several years in India. As Branch relates, King pleaded with the young graduate student to quit his studies: “We need you now,” King said. “We don’t have any Negro leadership in the South that understands nonviolence.”

Martin Luther Kings examines bullet in the window

Big enough to fail, big enough to win.

King’s political genius was in putting the institutional weight of a major national civil rights organization behind an ambitious, escalating deployment of civil resistance tactics.

In the case of Birmingham, this meant taking many of the approaches that had been tried before — the economic pressure leveled against merchants during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the dramatic sit-ins of Nashville, the fill-the-jails arrest strategy of Albany — and combining them in a multi-staged assault that sociologist and civil rights historian Aldon Morris would dub “a planned exercise in mass disruption.”

In creating an engineered conflict that could capture the national spotlight, King took huge risks. It would have been far easier for an organization of the size and background of the SCLC {Southern Christian Leadership Council} to turn toward more mainstream lobbying and legal action — much as the NAACP had done.

Instead, by following SNCC’s student activists in embracing nonviolent confrontation, SCLC organizers and their local allies created a dramatic clash with segregationists that put the normally hidden injustices of racism on stark public display. As historian Michael Kazin argues, the famous scenes from Birmingham of police dogs snapping at unarmed demonstrators and water canons being opened on young marchers “convinced a plurality of whites, for the first time, to support the cause of black freedom.” Likewise, King would later write that, in watching marchers defy Bull Connor’s menacing police troops, he “felt there, for the first time, the pride and power of nonviolence.”

… when {King} did commit himself to spearheading the type of broad-based nonviolent protest he had been talking about for years, it resulted in campaigns that profoundly altered the public sense of what measures were needed to uphold civil rights in the United States. The Birmingham model would prove widely influential. Victory in that city sent ripples throughout the country: In the two and a half months after the Birmingham campaign announced a settlement with store owners that commenced desegregation, more than 750 civil rights protests took place in 186 American cities, leading to almost 15,000 arrests.

Given the demonstrated power of mass disruption to shift the political discussion around an issue, why don’t more organizations pursue such strategies? Why aren’t more groups using militant nonviolence to confront pressing challenges such as economic inequality and global climate change?

Martin Luther King's Civil Disobedience

There is a certain paradox at work here, one that should enhance our appreciation of King’s courage. As veteran labor strategist Stephen Lerner argued in 2011, major organizations have just enough at stake — relationships with mainstream politicians, financial obligations to members, collective bargaining contracts — to make them fear the lawsuits and political backlash that come with sustained civil disobedience.

What Lerner says of unions applies equally to large environmental organizations, human rights groups, and other nonprofits: they “are just big enough — and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure — to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed” for bold campaigns of nonviolent conflict to be successful. As a consequence, explosive direct actions — from the Nashville sit-ins to Occupy to the revolution in Egypt — are often led by scrappy, under-funded upstarts.

Such ad hoc groups can risk daring campaigns because they have nothing to lose, but they commonly lack the resources to escalate or to sustain multiple waves of protest over a period of years, a rare and powerful ability that established institutions can provide.

To not merely adopt pacifism as a personal philosophy, but rather to stake your career and your organization’s future on a belief in the power of nonviolence as a political force, requires tremendous determination. It took years of deliberation and delay for Martin Luther King to take such a step. But when he finally did, the result was decisive: King went from being someone who had been repeatedly swept up in the saga of civil rights — a reluctant protagonist in the battle against American apartheid — to being a shaper of history.


About the authors

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, an editorial board member at Dissent, and a contributing editor at Yes! Magazine. See his new book: This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (2017).

Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles.

They can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

About the Waging Nonviolence website

Waging Nonviolence is a source for original news and analysis about struggles for justice and peace around the globe. Ordinary people build power using nonviolent strategies and tactics every day, even under the most difficult of circumstances, yet these stories often go unnoticed or misunderstood by a media industry fixated on violence and celebrity. Since 2009, WNV has been reporting on these people-powered struggles and helping their participants learn from one another, because we know that they can and do change the world.

We view nonviolence as neither a fixed ideology nor merely a collection of strategies. It is not passivity or the avoidance of conflict. Rather, “waging nonviolence” is the active pursuit of a better, less violent society by means worthy of the goal and those best suited to achieving it. WNV welcomes a diversity of voices and viewpoints that seek alternatives to violence through people power.  {From their About page.}

This story was made possible by members of Waging Nonviolence. Become one today.

Lennon on nonviolence

For More Information

Recommended to learn more about MLK:  “Restoring King“, Thomas J. Sugrue (Prof History, U PA), Jacobin, 20 January 2014 — “There is no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted and words more drained of content than Martin Luther King.”

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about civil rights, about political violence, and especially these…

  1. Sobering words from a great man about the road ahead.
  2. The pilgrimage of Martin Luther King: an antidote to our amnesia about America’s history.
  3. Martin Luther King Jr’s advice to us about using violence to reform America.
  4. How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009

A provocative book about Martin Luther King Jr.

I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. by Michael Eric Dyson. He is an ordained Baptist minister a Professor at DePaul University, and the author of Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture, and Race Rules: Navigating The Color Line.

I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr.
Available at Amazon.

From the publisher: “A private citizen who transformed the world around him, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arguably the greatest American who ever lived. Now, after more than thirty years, few people understand how truly radical he was. In this groundbreaking examination of the man and his legacy, provocative author, lecturer, and professor Michael Eric Dyson restores King’s true vitality and complexity and challenges us to embrace the very contradictions that make King relevant in today’s world.”

Review by Vanessa Bush at Booklist: “Dyson offers scathing criticism of liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, and even former colleagues and the King family for various transgressions, from exploitation to neglect, of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Conservatives have cited King’s color-blind teachings in arguments against affirmative action …. In this well-documented work, Dyson explores King’s little known or forgotten views: his support of the concepts of affirmative action and democratic socialism, and his cynicism about white Americans. Dyson explores King’s personal failings (his promiscuity and plagiarism), putting them in the context of the life and times of an extraordinary man. Despite King’s image as a “safe Negro” leader, Dyson modernizes King’s legacy in parallels to young rappers and black nationalists, the current angry voices on race. Dyson, a minister and Columbia University professor, offers passionate and insightful analysis of a man who ‘helped redefine our country’s destiny as a private citizen in a remarkable career that lasted a mere thirteen years.'”

8 thoughts on “Martin Luther King Jr’s advice to us about using violence to reform America”

  1. King used psyops.

    Which made sense given the facts and circumstances with which he was confronted. But which may not make sense in other circumstances.

    1. Begin by reading Orwell’s essay on Ghandi. In particular: “Reflections of Ghandi” — Excerpt:

      However, Gandhi’s pacifism can be separated to some extent from his other teachings. Its motive was religious, but he claimed also for it that it was a definitive technique, a method, capable of producing desired political results. Gandhi’s attitude was not that of most Western pacifists.

      SATYAGRAHA, first evolved in South Africa, was a sort of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling or arousing hatred. It entailed such things as civil disobedience, strikes, lying down in front of railway trains, enduring police charges without running away and without hitting back, and the like. Gandhi objected to “passive resistance” as a translation of SATYAGRAHA: in Gujarati, it seems, the word means “firmness in the truth”.

      In his early days Gandhi served as a stretcher-bearer on the British side in the Boer War, and he was prepared to do the same again in the war of 1914-18. Even after he had completely abjured violence he was honest enough to see that in war it is usually necessary to take sides. He did not — indeed, since his whole political life centred round a struggle for national independence, he could not — take the sterile and dishonest line of pretending that in every war both sides are exactly the same and it makes no difference who wins.

      Nor did he, like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: “What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?” I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the “you’re another” type.

      But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer’s GANDHI AND STALIN. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly.

      One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.

  2. One of the things which I think it’s important to remember about true nonviolent civil disobedience as advocated by Thoreau and Gandhi and King — and it’s a principle which a lot of protesters these days seem to be choosing to ignore — is the willingness to accept the consequences of breaking the law even though you’ve done so as an act of protest because you believe the law to be unjust.

    As I recently pointed out in a comment in response to another post on this site, the defining aspect of a truly ethical or heroic act is the willingness to do what you believe to be right even if it costs you…and as often as not, instead of being rewarded, the costs which heroes and freedom fighters have paid have often been quite high (which is one reason why many people choose to be bystanders instead of heroes). Both King and Gandhi allowed themselves to be arrested and jailed several times as a consequence of their actions without resisting their arrest or fighting their imprisonment. Both endured criticism, discrimination, and physical assault…and both ended up paying the ultimate price in the form of an assassin’s bullet. Nonviolence is most definitely not for the faint of heart and is not the recourse of the weak because it requires tremendous strength — more than it seems many people have — even if only to resist the natural tendency to return violence with violence.

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