Martin Luther King’s non-violence: Personal belief or strategy or both?

On a day when we remember Martin Luther King, I want to share a personal perspective on his advocacy of non-violence. When the wisdom of a great person is invoked, omission of the context that gave it meaning demeans the person and distorts his/her message.

The origin of this reflection:

Shortly after 911, the teacher of the “Alternatives to Violence” class at Washington, DC’s Wilson HS, a DC Public School, invited a number of speakers opposed to the US military response to share their views with students and interested teachers.

Some also criticized the SAT as “racist,” “since poor black children shouldn’t be expected to know vocabulary words like ‘yacht’ they don’t hear at home.”*

Several spoke about the “AIDS conspiracy,” but were curiously silent about South African President Thabo Mbeki’s pseudo-scientific theories of its origins, the basis of his opposition to preventive health measures. No mention was made of the protests that Mbeki’s measures provoked.

One speaker, who had attended the recent UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, decried the fact that English was one of the conference’s eight “privileged” official languages. He was clearly oblivious to the fact that the Soweto uprising, which reignited the movement that culminated in the end of apartheid, began when Soweto high school students demanded the right to be taught in English, the language of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, whose speeches on smuggled tapes were the target of the apartheid government’s thinly disguised censorship plan of making Afrikaans the language of instruction. (In 1979, when I was at Cardozo HS, with the backing of the Washington Teachers’ Union and its president, William Simons, I helped to organize a speaking tour of DC high schools for Soweto student leader Tsietsi Mashinini).

Speakers made frequent references to Martin Luther King Jr and his advocacy of non-violence, attempting to tie it to each of these issues. A few months later, on the occasion of his birthday, students and teachers were invited to a speak-out on non-violence and the war in Afghanistan (this was a year before the Iraq invasion). I gave the following talk.

– – – – – – – – – – –


From a pay phone somewhere in the Negro neighborhood of Selma, Alabama, the scratchy sound of my friend Walter’s insistent voice stirred me. Following the Battle at Selma Bridge and the cowardly murder of Jim Reeb, the ex-minister of DC’s All Souls Unitarian Church, our safe classrooms overlooking the Potomac couldn’t keep him north. His picture had just appeared in Time Magazine, backed against a wall, dodging Sheriff Jim Clark’s trademark white cane, swung from horseback with punishing effect. I could think of no reason to stay away.

It was March 1965.
Two days later, my ’51 Merc was one of several carloads that ended up in Montgomery, Alabama, home of the Confederacy and George Wallace, its current symbol of defiance. We were among the many drawn to the last half dozen or so miles of that great and swelling march, where Martin Luther King, speaking on the capital steps, called upon the U.S. Congress to enact the stalled Voting Rights Bill. The marching, the singing and the exhilaration of a common bond of purpose forged indelible memories that gave life meaning and direction:

– Packed like sardines on the floor of Mr. Ziegler’s modern brick house on a dusty street in the “colored section” that the city fathers saw no need to pave;

– An old woman pressing a few hard earned dimes and nickels into my confused and hesitant hands, blessing me for coming to her city for a day that, for too long, lived only in hope and faith;

– Swaying to the low of “We Shall Overcome,” sung with a spiritual intensity that only long-awaited justice can evoke;

– The lasting images of the long line of marchers (my first of many) winding along the highway into Montgomery, especially noticeable for the religious diversity visible in religious garb: Priests and ministers wearing the Roman collar, nuns in their habits, men wearing the kippah (then more commonly called a yarmulke) and, as seen in the movie, a robed Eastern Orthodox prelate with cross and scepter, and the blue jean overalls favored by many of the young civil rights workers. Along the side of the road, again as in the movie, African-American children and older adults not joining in, but showing their support by smiling and waving at us.

– The prickly sensation of fear, when a jackbooted motorcycle cop, spotting my illegal left turn, pulled me over, New Jersey license plates, unimpeachable evidence of my sin as “outside agitator”:

“You boys comin’ from thuh ralllihh?”
“No, sir; we’re on our way back from Spring Break in New Orleans,”** were the timid words of discretion I heard myself speak.
“Youuu broke thuh law back a ways with that ill-legal left turn, an offense against thuh laws of Mon’gom’ry, Alibammuh. Youuu will folluh me to the cawthouse. Heahhh?”
“Yes, sir.”

With barely $20 between us, images of jail cells and the three recently murdered civil rights workers flashed through my mind.

I don’t really remember Martin Luther King’s speech; oh, something about voting rights and the governor’s refusal to protect the marchers. More meaningful than those forgotten words was his gift to me and countless others: A welcome into that great movement for justice and into the arms of humanity and the responsibilities that membership brings.

The power of that movement for justice and his accomplishments are misunderstood, if reduced to an oversimplified advocacy of non-violence. Understanding that it was simultaneously a strategy does not devalue his personal belief. From Thoreau’s writings on non-violent resistance to unjust laws to Gandhi’s practical application in India and the strategy workshops at Highlander Folk School (attended also by Rosa Parks), King’s vision was translated into Alabama reality by union veteran and NAACP leader E.D. Nixon. King’s vision and strategy were grounded on the confluence of evolving global changes and domestic realities that began with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the irreparable fissure in America’s Berlin Wall of legalized segregation.

Like Gandhi, George Washington and even Ho Chi Minh, King understood that those who appeared to benefit from privilege were no monolith. The movement for justice could win support not only from those under the heel of Jim Crow but also from those on the other side of the color line, capable of rejecting a “just us” version of justice.
King also understood another reality that often discomforts those who favor social justice, but not when imposed by the Federal Government: Opponents often yield, not out of moral enlightenment, but when continued resistance seems futile. And, as long as resistance festers, it may reassert itself when it no longer seems futile.***

King understood the power of television. The brutal treatment of fellow Americans peacefully seeking to exercise constitutional rights long guaranteed on paper was witnessed daily in the nation’s living rooms and now became increasingly intolerable. The strategy of non-violence made nation and world witness to the real source of violence.

Then, too, the State Department had run out of red-faced explanations for the rude treatment and crude insults endured by African and Asian diplomats on Maryland’s Route 40 when driving between Washington embassies and UN offices in New York. As America competed with the Soviet Union for world leadership, the message of democracy and freedom increasingly stumbled on the hypocritical contrasts of those embarrassing facts.

Then there was that war in Viet Nam and Martin Luther King’s powerful sermon announcing his public opposition – and break with President Johnson, delivered at New York’s Riverside Cathedral on April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before violence born of hate stole his life.

But wait! Didn’t he receive the Nobel Peace Prize 3 years earlier – in 1964? And didn’t the U.S. troop escalation begin in March 1965, two full years before the Riverside sermon, by which time over 10,000 Americans and tens of thousands Vietnamese had been killed! Two years of public silence!! Where were the public condemnations from the apostle of non-violence? Was he a hypocrite? If so, why not just overlook that flaw whenever the sainted, now forever muted, icon of non-violence can be invoked for the final word!

For King, the commitment to civil rights and economic opportunity compelled him to choose between his personal revulsion against the violence of war and his reluctance to alienate the president who had signed two civil rights bills and funded a war on poverty – as well as that much bigger one in Vietnam. Was the resulting conflict between the non-violence of personal conviction and the strategy of non-violence that won political support against seemingly unmovable odds just another instance of the hypocrisy?

When his advocacy of non-violence is torn from the historical context that gave it life and then reduced to a rigid slogan or dogma, the lessons to be learned from the real human dilemma lose meaning and instructive value.

For that reason, we should treat with caution efforts to invoke his blessing on present-day [2002] controversies:

Would he have condemned the U.S. military response to 9/11?
Would he condemn the World Bank and International Monetary Fund?
Would he politely ignore South Africa President Thabo Mbeki’s pseudo-scientific AIDS fantasies?
Would he condemn SAT tests as racist?

Before rushing to offer a politically convenient answer, we should remember that, as a leader breaking new ground, he took responsibilities upon himself that made rigid adherence to doctrine or philosophy a luxury. Before invoking his blessing for some partisan cause, we should recall how easy it is to summon gods and icons to legitimize both human cruelty and human kindness.

Oh – some stories do end well. The fine for the moving violation on the streets of Montgomery: “City of Montgomery vs. Erich Martel: $3.00,” which, in 1965, was the price of 10 gallons of gas.

For Viola Liuzzo, however, a mother of five from Detroit who volunteered to drive marchers between Selma and Montgomery, a Klansman’s drive-by shotgun blast ended her life, joining her name to the countless many who paid the ultimate price in pursuit of justice.

— Erich Martel [originally written, January 15, 2002]


* Core knowledge advocate E.D. Hirsch has pointed out that the 1960’s Black Panther Party newspaper employed correct grammar and used words like “imperialism,” “capitalism,” etc., assuming that its target audience would know or learn terms and concepts they were unlikely to hear at home.
** In fact, a mere 10 days earlier, a bunch of us had driven to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, which is probably why that came so quickly to mind.
*** We now see that this has come to pass. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision weakened the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, many state legislatures began to enact restrictive voting laws.

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