The Foundation is Love: Martin Luther King, Jr., on the Christian Calling to Nonviolent Protest

Police officers arrest Martin Luther King, Jr., in Montgomery, Alabama, on a charge of loitering, Sept. 4, 1958.

By David Mills Published on January 17, 2022

Many people get it wrong, or just ignore it entirely. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance and protest isn’t so fashionable as his standing up for the rights of black Americans and his inspiring words about an America freed of racism. Turning the other cheek never is.

You get hurt, the bully gets away with it, and nothing changes. We think. Because there you are, lying on the ground with a red cheek or a black eye and the bully’s strutting around while his friends cheer. Jesus knew better. Turning the other cheek can change the world. It can change the world in ways violence won’t. He didn’t guarantee that it would, in ways we can see. He just said that people who loved Him would do this. Our obedience contributes in some way to fulfilling His will for His world.

King’s Crucial Development

He developed Jesus’s teaching in one crucial way. Jesus speaks of our response to being attacked. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

King applied Jesus’s instruction to protesting racial oppression in a nation whose ideals were much better than its practice. He said that we must assert our rights, or defend the rights of others, against people who deny those rights and will fight us to keep the oppressed from enjoying them. In other words, he called us to stand up to the oppressors in a way that will provoke them.

But not strike back when they attack. Turn the other check, yes, but put yourself in a place where your cheek will be struck, because you belong there. You’ve been called to be there. That way is hard. That’s what the young black people sitting at the whites only lunch counters from which they were legally excluded did. Watch the films of their suffering abuse from the racist mobs and their astonishing patience in not striking back.

Most Christians, whatever their politics, can imagine having to do this themselves. The world threatens people and good things we must defend. Sometimes we must defend them in ways we know will provoke a reaction, maybe a violent reaction. There we must stand, we can do no other. We can learn a lot from Martin Luther King, Jr., about how to do this.

Here is a selection of King’s thoughts on nonviolent protest taken from his major speeches. They’re given in chronological order. In all these talks, he said much else worthy of reflection, on subjects like poverty and war, so read them too.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

 Written in April 1963 to eight prominent Alabama clergymen who called the protest King led “unwise and untimely.”

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. …

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. …

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. …

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Six Principles of Nonviolence

First, nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

Second, nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.

Third, nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. It recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.

Fourth, nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. It accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

Fifth, nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. It resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.

Sixth, nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.

— Taken from King’s Stride Toward Freedom, by the King Center

[T]he present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

I have 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. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.

And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies — a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

I Have a Dream

 Delivered in August 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

[A]nother reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today. …

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

 Delivered in Stockholm in 1964 after he received the Nobel Peace Prize. His Nobel lecture follows.

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that 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. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.

Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. …

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. … I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that we shall overcome! …

Most of these people will never make the headline and their names will not appear in Who’s Who. Yet when years have rolled past and when the blazing light of truth is focused on this marvelous age in which we live — men and women will know and children will be taught that we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization — because these humble children of God were willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake.

Nobel Prize Lecture

 Delivered in in Stockholm in 1964 after he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

I experience this high and joyous moment not for myself alone but for those devotees of nonviolence who have moved so courageously against the ramparts of racial injustice and who in the process have acquired a new estimate of their own human worth. Many of them are young and cultured. Others are middle aged and middle class. The majority are poor and untutored. But they are all united in the quiet conviction that it is better to suffer in dignity than to accept segregation in humiliation. These are the real heroes of the freedom struggle: they are the noble people for whom I accept the Nobel Peace Prize. …

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Broadly speaking, nonviolence in the civil rights struggle has meant not relying on arms and weapons of struggle. It has meant noncooperation with customs and laws which are institutional aspects of a regime of discrimination and enslavement. It has meant direct participation of masses in protest, rather than reliance on indirect methods which frequently do not involve masses in action at all.

Nonviolence has also meant that my people in the agonizing struggles of recent years have taken suffering upon themselves instead of inflicting it on others. It has meant, as I said, that we are no longer afraid and cowed. But in some substantial degree it has meant that we do not want to instill fear in others or into the society of which we are a part. The movement does not seek to liberate Negroes at the expense of the humiliation and enslavement of whites. It seeks no victory over anyone. It seeks to liberate American society and to share in the self-liberation of all the people. …

In a real sense nonviolence seeks to redeem the spiritual and moral lag that I spoke of earlier as the chief dilemma of modern man. It seeks to secure moral ends through moral means. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.

I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.

Beyond Vietnam

 Delivered at Riverside Church in New York City in April 1967 to a gathering of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam.

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and non-violence when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

I’ve Been to the Mountaintop

 The last speech King gave, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated.

Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today. …

I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”

Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know … there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. … That couldn’t stop us.

And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take ’em off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

And every now and then we’d get in jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham.

 

This article originally appeared on April 4, 2018 and has been given a new introduction.

 

David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. His previous article was We See Sin So Clearly — The Ones We Don’t Commit.

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