|Mugshot of MLK Jr. taken in 1963 in Birmingham Alabama|
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was born 86 years ago today on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia and he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 when he was just 39 years old, but he packed more life in those 39 years than many do in 86. He was a baptist minister and an apostle of nonviolence that followed that retraced the path taken by Mohandas Gandhi thirty years earlier into martyrdom as he embraced the Christian ethic of radical love and nonviolence.
The next few days have over the past eight years been days of reflection on the significance of Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent legacy. However the events of 2014 and the ongoing conversation bring new urgency prompting engaging in a public dialogue.
First the essay by Frank Harris III, a professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, published in the Hartford Courant asked the question: "Would Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nonviolence Succeed Today?" I did not agree with professor Harris's conclusion that: "[t]he strategy of nonviolence in a violent world works only if those who are acting violently have some ember of a conscience."
The percentage of a population without a conscience is always minority and is clinically described as a syndrome called malignant narcissism or more commonly known as sociopaths and comprise 4% of the population. The trouble is that a clever sociopath in a position of authority can institute policies that dehumanize and demonize targeted populations that the non-sociopathic majority then set out to destroy. Sadly we have seen these dynamics in cultures and races all over the world targeting people based on their race, class or religion just to mention three categories.
The objective of nonviolence is to re-humanize both the non-sociopathic majority driven to inhumane acts and at the same time empowering and rehumanizing those targeted by exercising the healing power of nonviolence. Although this will not convert those without "some ember of conscience" they would no longer be in power.
Secondly, even in a powerful and well made film such as Selma now in theaters this dynamic is missing. Michael Nagler and Mercedes Mack of the Metta Center in their review of the film cite the southern writer Marshal Frady:
". . . in the catharsis of a live confrontation with wrong, when an oppressor’s violence is met with a forgiving love, he can be vitally touched, and even, at least momentarily, reborn as a human being, while the society witnessing such a confrontation will be quickened in conscience toward compassion and justice."Nagler and Mack go on to explain that "[i]n the field of nonviolence this is known as a 'nonviolent moment.' This is the transformative power of nonviolence on display that for whatever reason has not been reproduced or captured in a major film.
Thirdly, Cornel West in an interview on 'The Radical King' outlines Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s radical nature:
"King was about militant nonviolence. It goes back to radical love: You don't begin by dehumanizing those who are dehumanizing you, because it contributes to the cycle of dehumanization in the world. And you're right: It takes unbelievable spiritual courage, moral fortitude, to engage in militant nonviolence. To put it another way, Martin King was an extremist of love. We live in a world where people are fearful of extremism, but King would say he was always trying to keep the flow of love in place. In that sense, he turned the world on its head."However, at the same time that Martin Luther King Jr. was militantly nonviolent he did not abandon anger but harnessed it explaining in Freedomways magazine in 1968, "The supreme task [of a leader] is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force." He was also not a fan of moderation and in his letter to his fellow clergymen written from a Birmingham jail he explained why:
"I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."There is much to be learned from the life of Martin Luther King Jr., for any activist seeking to aggressively bring an end to an unjust system. The first lesson is profoundly Christian and it is to harness the anger against injustice without allowing to contaminate your love for your enemy. Reverend King in St. Augustine in 1964 also explained exactly what kind of love this is:
"Its difficult advice and in some quarters it isn't too popular to say it...Let us recognize that violence is not the answer. I must say to you tonight that violence is impractical...We have another method that is much more powerful and much more effective than the weapon of violence...Hate isn't our weapon either...I am not talking now about a weak love it would be nonsense for an oppressed people to love their oppressor in an affectionate sense I'm not talking about that too many people confuse the meaning of love when they go to criticizing the love ethic. ...I am talking about a love that is so strong that it becomes a demanding love. A love that is so strong that it organizes itself into a mass movement and says somehow I am my brothers keeper and he is so wrong that I am willing to suffer and die to get him right and to see that he is on the wrong road."This idea is so powerful that both the FBI and KGB targeted Martin Luther King Jr trying to discredit and destroy him, but despite this the nonviolent action he practiced fundamentally transformed the United States of America.