Friday, January 15, 2016

Martin Luther King Jr. and his constant commitment to nonviolence as a method of struggle

"Before the victory's won, even some will have to face physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent psychological death, then nothing shall be more redemptive." - Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., We Shall Overcome, June 17, 1966

Martin Luther King Jr. Photograph (c) Bernard J. Kleina (1966)
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was born 87 years ago today on January 15, 1929. Although a day has been set aside in recognition of his impact on American history his nonviolent legacy is not fully understood but remains relevant and important for the future of human civilization. This was a man who came to national prominence leading a bus boycott in the nonviolent defense of Rosa Parks who had been arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus to a white man on December 1, 1955. Before the boycott was successfully ended, Martin Luther King Jr.'s home was bombed on January 30, 1956.

This southern baptist minister was considered so dangerous that both the FBI and the KGB targeted him in campaigns to discredit him because they could not control him and the civil rights movement under his leadership achieved concrete successes that challenged established structures of power. Reverend King advocated standing up and being aggressive but with "understanding, good will and with a sense of discipline," that was also "a demanding love" that rejected hatred. His ideas and example deserve a closer examination.

50 years ago in Hollywood, Florida on May 18, 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. discussed in great detail, at a time when other voices were counseling revolutionary violence, the nonviolent alternative in which he first described how a nonviolent movement must mobilize oppressed people for nonviolent resistance to injustice:
People are huddled in ghettos, living in the most crowded and depressing conditions. They need some outlet; some way to express their legitimate discontent. What is a better way than to provide non-violent channels through which they can do it? If this isn't provided they are going to find it through more irrational, misguided means. So the non-violent movement has a job to do, in providing the non-violent channels through which those who are caught in these conditions can express their discontent and frustration. 
Martin Luther King Jr. reaffirmed his commitment to non-violence while recognizing the consequences of such a position
Now let me say that I'm still convinced that non-violence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and human dignity. And I'd like to say just a word about this philosophy since it has been the underlying philosophy of our movement. It has power because it has a way of disarming the opponent. It exposes his moral defenses, it weakens his morale. And at the same time it works on his heart and on his conscience, and he just doesn't know what to do. If he doesn't hit you, wonderful. If he hits you you develop the quiet courage of accepting blows without retaliating. If he doesn't put you in jail, that's very nice, nobody with any sense loves to go to jail. But if he puts you in jail you go in that jail and transform it from a dungeon of shame into a haven of freedom and human dignity. Even if he tries to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there are some things so precious, some things so eternally true that they are worth dying for. If a man has not discovered some thing that he will die for, he isn't fit to live. 
Reverend King understood, as did Mohandas Gandhi, that Machiavelli was wrong, the ends do not justify the means:
 There's another good thing about non-violence: through it a person can use moral means to procure moral ends. There are still those who sincerely believe that the end justifies the means, no matter what the means happen to be. No matter how violent or how deceptive or anything else they are. Non-violence at its best would break with the system that argues that. Non-violence would say that the morality of the ends is implicit in the means, and that in the long-run of history destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. So since we are working toward a just society in this movement, we should use just methods to get there. Since we are working for the end of a non-violent society in this movement, we must use non-violent means and methods to get there.
Martin Luther King, Jr. would've been 87 years old today but never saw 40 because an assassin shot the 39 year old Baptist minister in the head on April 4, 1968 at 6:01pm in the midst of the final campaign before his death: the support of a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King's legacy lives on not only in the United States but inspired Cuban democrats such as Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas who have also been martyred in the struggle for justice, freedom and human dignity.


  1. Hi John,

    I know by heart that MLK was a true apostle of non-violence and civil disobedience and hence a role model for the late Oswaldo Paya but also the legendary Afro-Cuban dissident Oscar Biscet, but if you're curious to see if Paya would have been aware of the teachings of MLK and Gandhi in his teenagehood, there is a newly discovered speech by MLK --

    Judging from the speech, it's now clear that MLK didn't just call for equal rights, he also expressed solidarity with Nelson Mandela. I'm curious to see when Oscar Biscet became familiar with the non-violence preached by Gandhi, MLK, and Nelson Mandela.

    1. What I find interesting in the speech is that he calls for economic sanctions on the South African apartheid state. However, Mandela stopped preaching nonviolence after Sharpeville in 1960 and was captured in 1963 for carrying out acts of violence against the Apartheid regime. It has been argues that the ANC's abandonment of nonviolence prolonged the life of apartheid by decades.