Martin Luther King Jr. warns us about political violence

Summary: Martin Luther King Jr’s courage and leadership can inspire us today, recalling us to our core beliefs, Here we look at one aspect of his work, which in its totality puts him among our greatest leaders. Now more than ever we need his counsel.

“We are here this evening because we’re tired now. And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. We have never done that. …The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all.”
— From his Montgomery Bus Boycott speech, at Holt Street Baptist Church on 5 December 1955.

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

American reform movements have often used violence, usually unsuccessfully. The exceptions, such as by the KKK (against  African-Americans) and businesses (against workers), shaped America. The love of violence has deep roots in our culture, seen in our many wars and frequent state-sponsored political violence.

Reverend King’s leadership encouraged the civil rights movement to avoid this dark path, despite great provocation, and take the moral high ground that has so often proved decisive in US history. The following article describes this history. If worked for the Civil Rights movement, and can work for us today.

When Martin Luther King gave up his guns

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler.
From Waging Nonviolence, 15 January 2014.

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
Examining hole from shooting on 5 June 1964, in St. Augustine, FL.

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.

Posted here courtesy of their Creative Commons license.

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


“We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force. There is still a voice crying out through the vista of time, saying: ‘Love your enemies , bless them that curse you , pray for them that despitefully use you.’ …That same voice cries out in terms lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.’ And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations that failed to follow this command. We must follow nonviolence and love.”
— King’s “Give us the ballot” speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, 17 May 1957.

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.}

Lennon on nonviolence

For More Information

Recommended to learn more about MLK:  “Restoring King“, Thomas J. Sugrue (Prof History, U PA), Jacobin — “There is no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted and words more drained of content than Martin Luther King.” Also, see this inspiring story from our past: “How JFK Saved MLK’s Life And So Won The Presidency.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about civil rights, about political violence, about reforming America: steps to new politics, 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.
  5. Why don’t political protests work? What are the larger lessons from our repeated failures?
  6. Thoreau reminds us about one of the few tools we have to control the government — About civil disobedience.
  7. Fear the rise of political violence in America. We can still stop it.

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 of sociology at Georgetown, 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.'”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: