MARTIN LUTHER KING
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression,” declared Martin Luther King (MLK) in his Nobel acceptance speech in 1964. A trained theologian and Baptist minister, MLK was ultimately concerned with the issue of how black and white people can live together in America in peace, harmony and interracial unity. As a Christian and minister of the Gospel, he believed “we cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule.”
MLK’s aspirations for racial equality and justice were a natural outgrowth of the long and arduous nonviolent struggle by African Americans and their supporters to end slavery and racial discrimination. The struggle to end slavery in America was essentially a moral one. With the major exception of the American Civil War which ended slavery, there were relatively few slave insurrections and rebellions in colonial or antebellum (pre-Civil War) America. Among the few notable violent slave rebellions include Denmark Vesey’s uprising in South Carolina; and in Virginia, Gabriel’s conspiracy, Nat Turner’s rebellion and white abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal armory.
African slaves in America toiled for their masters under the most inhumane conditions, while a few freed slaves and abolitionists agitated to end slavery through moral condemnation and other legal efforts. Some abolitionists sought to repeal or invalidate the Slave Codes (which legally recognized slaves as the personal property of the owner in much the same way as cattle) in the colonial legislatures or courts. Individual slaves who could afford to buy their freedom did so, or were manumitted by their masters.
By the mid-1800s, former slaves were directly challenging slavery, not through armed insurrections, but in the courtrooms asserting constitutional rights of American citizenship. They had a rude awakening when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its final answer on slavery in the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1851): “It is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted the Declaration of Independence.” Once a slave, always a slave! This case set the stage for the American Civil War.
MLK was certainly not the first African American to advocate a nonviolent struggle (in contrast to civil disobedience of unjust laws) against inequality and injustice in America. Notably, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, in the 1840s, influenced by the pacifist ethos of the abolitionist movement, preached widely that slavery could be ended only through moral persuasion. In the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington even argued that Black people should suspend the struggle for equality “political power, insistence on civil rights, and higher education of Negro youth and concentrate on industrial education.” He thought equality would naturally come to blacks once they became economically self-sufficient and commanded the respect of whites. W.E. B. DuBois took the opposite view and advocated the nurturing of a “small but well-educated negro youth” (“Talented Tenth”) to guide blacks in their quest for equality and justice in America.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (N.A.A.C.P.) continued the nonviolent struggle for equality and justice in its many successful legal challenges to discriminatory laws in education, voting and housing under the leadership of attorney Thurgood Marshall, who later became one of the greatest justices to ever sit on the United States Supreme Court. Black leaders such as J. Phillip Randolph in 1941 threatened to mount a peaceful protest march on Washington if racial discrimination was not ended in the defense industry. In response, President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in defense industries that accepted federal contracts, and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Randolph called off the march, but in 1948, he again played a critical role in persuading President Truman’s to desegregate the armed services. Other Black leaders such as Bayard Rustin and James Farmer, both conscientious objectors and pacifists, founded the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942; and two decades later organized convoys of nonviolent Freedom Riders into the deep South in an effort to desegregate interstate buses and bus terminals.
MLK’s imagination for a nonviolent struggle against segregation and racism was fired by Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience, which he read in his freshman year in college. He was fascinated by the whole idea of actively refusing to cooperate with a system that inflicted so much suffering on black people; but at the time the idea of civil disobedience as an effective tool for social change seemed impractical to him. He continued his philosophical exploration of nonviolent social change in the theological seminary by studying Gandhi.
By the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, MLK had made an irreversible intellectual commitment to nonviolent resistance as a tactical weapon against segregation and racial discrimination. However, it was his actual engagement in protest and civil disobedience that convinced him of the necessity of nonviolence in social change. He observed that “living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many issues I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.”
MLK’s ideas about nonviolent civil disobedience rested fundamentally on his analysis of the nature of human laws, in contrast to the laws of God. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he explained that there were just and unjust laws in society: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
There are many manifestation of an unjust law; and MLK made a distinction between a law that is unjust on its face, and one that is unjust in its application. A manifestly unjust law is one “that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.” A law that imposes segregation on a group of people merely because of their skin color is morally wrong and unjust on its face. A law that is imposed on a minority that was never given a voice — more accurately, prevented from voting by legal and illegal means– either in electing the lawmakers or in the formulation of the law is not only unjust, it is also fundamentally undemocratic.
Most importantly, “all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” An example of a law that is unjust in application is a city parade permit ordinance, which in itself is not objectionable, but when used systematically to prevent demonstrations against segregation laws, becomes unjust in application.
Disobedience of unjust laws, according to MLK, is a hallmark of Christians who early in their history “were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.” He even found civil disobedience practiced widely among the American colonists who staged the Boston Tea Party (colonial settler boycott of English tea after Parliament gave an English company monopoly on tea importation into the colonies) just three years before the onset of the American revolution.
By the mid-1950s, MLK had concluded that it took too long to end unjust laws through judicial pronouncements and injunctions, which were routinely ignored and flouted by segregationists. He was deeply offended and saddened by the daily indignities that black people had to endure in public accommodations –white and colored drinking fountains, whites’ only hotels and restaurants and racial epithets. Employment, education, and housing discrimination were inescapable facts of second class citizenship for blacks; and most had been resigned to these facts as immutable aspects of life in white America. He insisted on the moral imperative and duty of citizens to disobey unjust laws.
By the time of the Montgomery Boycott in 1956, MLK had come to the conclusion that change in segregation laws could come only through organized mass action, and not negotiation in the boardroom or litigation in the courtroom. The events leading to the boycott and launching of a mass-based nonviolent civil disobedience movement began in 1955 when Rosa Parks, a seamstress, calmly refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person as required by the segregation laws of the time. Parks was arrested triggering massive protest in the black community in Montgomery, Alabama. A few days later, MLK reluctantly accepted the presidency of a new organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association, and began coordinating a boycott of the city’s bus system. After a year of sustained boycotts, the city’s bus system was successfully desegregated.
The Montgomery boycott experience was instructive to MLK in combining Christian theology with Gandhian civil disobedience. While leading the boycott, MLK often thought about “the Sermon on the Mount (central principles of Christian discipleship) and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. This principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”
After the Montgomery victory, MLK and other black leaders determined that it was necessary to create an organization that could build upon the gains of the Montgomery boycott and launch a national civil rights movement, resulting in the establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This organization was intended to serve as a coordinating mechanism for a national mass-based nonviolent direct action campaign against racism and racial discrimination.
In 1959, MLK traveled to India as a guest of Indian Prime Minister Nehru and spent some time there learning about Gandhian principles. The experience reaffirmed his commitment to nonviolent social change. Upon returning to the U.S., he noted similarities in the treatment of the “untouchables” in India and blacks in America. He found it ironic that India’s leaders had accepted integration of “untouchables,” while some major American leaders continued to stridently support racial segregation.
By the early 1960s, MLK found himself not only fighting unjust laws, but also in the middle of two opposing forces in the Black community: one “made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they have adjusted to segregation,” and a second group of black people “who have lost faith in America and absolutely repudiated Christianity, and have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil’.” MLK “tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do-nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” He sought to offer a “more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest” that could prevent bloodshed and avoid “a frightening racial nightmare.”
MLK faced a number of organizational and tactical problems in managing a mass-based civil rights movement: mobilizing that part of the black community that had been “drained of self-respect” into joining a mass civil rights movement, mitigating the violent tendencies of black youth and that part of the black community that has “absolutely repudiated” Christianity, particularly black nationalists and separatists, managing the cross pressures applied on him by sympathetic white liberals who wanted him to be more patient in seeking changes, and fending off the personal attacks of FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover.
In weighing his options and in developing a comprehensive strategy for the civil rights movement, MLK drew some fundamental conclusions about the realities in American society. He became convinced that “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily nor willingly give freedom to the oppressed.” Black people must, therefore, be insistent in demanding their rights, but in doing so they “must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns.” They “must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate” and make love the “center of their lives.” He instructed: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
MLK believed it served no purpose to engage in acrimony with such leaders as Malcolm X, who believed that the whole idea of nonviolence and integration was a trick devised by whites to keep blacks in subordinate positions in American society, and urged black people to respond to white oppression “by any means necessary.” MLK understood the rage and impatience of young blacks, and found it counterproductive to engage their leaders in public debates. However, he supported the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as its members engaged in lunch counter sit-ins, took freedom rides into the deep South, and integrated them in the planning of the march on Washington.
MLK determined white liberals were misguided in understanding the urgency of the demands of the Negro because they have never seen “vicious mobs lynch (their) mothers and fathers at will and drown (their) sisters and brothers at whim,” or experienced the feeling of being “smothered in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” He cautioned: “The white liberal must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order to justice. It is important for the liberal to see that the oppressed person who agitates for his rights is not the creator of tension.”
Throughout the 1960s, MLK applied Gandhi’s strategy in launching successful nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns based on the existence of four preconditions: existence of sufficient facts showing substantial injustice, attempts at genuine negotiations to remedy the injustice, self-purification, and ultimately, direct action. From his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, MLK explained how he applied his four point direct action program in the civil disobedience campaign in that city. Birmingham’s “ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation.” Black leaders tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with local merchants and government officials to repeal segregation laws and symbols of racial humiliation in public accommodations.
Failing in their efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement, black people in Birmingham had no choice but to prepare for direct action, but before acting, they needed to undergo self-purification by engaging in a “a series of workshops on nonviolence” and asking themselves: “Are (we) able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are (we) able to endure the ordeal of jail?” Following “self-purification,” they began lunch counter and library sit-ins, marches on City Hall and the county building, and started voter registration drives. They enlisted thousands of high school students to join the demonstrations, and many of them ended up in jail attracting national and international attention. MLK’s efforts in Birmingham transformed American public opinion and heralded the end of the legal system of segregation that had been a fact of life throughout the South since the Civil War.
By the mid-1960s, MLK felt a certain amount of disillusionment with his efforts and the lack of tangible successes the nonviolent civil rights movement had produced for black Americans. He became increasingly critical and condemnatory of American involvement in the Vietnam War. He preached that America should solve its own racial and social problems before sending young Americans, particularly black men, to fight in some distant land. He criticized the FBI for failing to aggressively investigate violations of the rights of black citizens. FBI Director Hoover, stung by the criticism, undertook a personal vendetta against MLK and spared no effort, including use of illegal wiretaps, to discredit him personally and as a public leader. When MLK was chosen as Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” Hoover remarked that “they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one.”
MLK was criticized as an extremist for his nonviolent disobedience and advocacy, but he often turned the question on his critics: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Are we to be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.” He explained that the central purpose of direct action was to produce negotiations with those that have historically refused to discuss the issue. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
Like Gandhi, MLK saw nonviolent resistance not as end in itself but as a tool to “awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent.” The aim is not “to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding,” and ultimately spiritual redemption and social reconciliation. The target of nonviolent direct action are the “forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces.” The struggle against racism and discrimination is to “defeat injustice and not white persons who may happen to be unjust.” MLK believed nonviolent civil disobedience was “not a method for cowards,” and in the spirit of Gandhi, advised that nonviolent civil disobedience should be done “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
MLK will be remembered as one of the great champions of equality and justice throughout the world. His leadership of the civil rights movement produced two of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in American history — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He brought a renewed sense of dignity and self-assurance for black people in America, and hope to all oppressed peoples throughout the world.
Above of all, MLK was a man of vision and dreams, and saw America as the Promised Land. Were he alive today, I wonder if he would have urged Ethiopians to set aside their ethnic, religious, linguistic, regional and gender differences and “sit down together at the table of brotherhood (and sisterhood) and work together, pray together, struggle together, go to jail together, and stand up for freedom together, knowing that they will be free one day.”
I feel certain that he would have gladly shared his favorite verse, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, to lift our weary souls:
My country,’ tis of thee,
sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing;
land where my fathers died,
land of… (our) pride,
from every mountainside let freedom ring!
My native country, thee,
land of the noble free, thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
thy woods and templed hills;
my heart with rapture thrills, like that above.
Let music swell the breeze,
and ring from all the trees sweet freedom’s song;
let mortal tongues awake;
let all that breathe partake;
let rocks their silence break, the sound prolong.
Our fathers’ God, to thee,
author of liberty, to thee we sing;
long may our land be bright
with freedom’s holy light;
protect us by thy might, great God, our King.