The Foundation is Love: Martin Luther King, Jr., on Nonviolent Protest

By David Mills Published on January 18, 2021

The Martin Luther King, Jr., now being celebrated isn’t quite the one who actually existed. Like anyone challenging and heroic, people want to identify with him, but on their terms.

Some stress his ideals and neglect his radicalism. Others see the radicalism as growing from the ideals, and reflecting his experience asking America to live up to them.

The conservative writer Joe Long, writing for American Greatness, points to King’s now unfashionable belief both in America’s founding tradition and Christian belief. As King said near the end of his Letter From Birmingham Jail, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

Writing for the English lefty newspaper The Guardian, Gary Younge points to King’s social and political radicalism. He reminds us how unpopular King was at the end of his life. National Review didn’t like him, of course, but the New York Times didn’t like him much either. Cornel West gives other examples, also in The Guardian.

As King said in 1967, “We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.”

So Hard to Get Right

Most people choose one King or the other. But there’s one central aspect of his life’s work that many people get wrong, or just ignore entirely: His philosophy of nonviolent resistance and protest. He said you must stand up for the oppressed, the persecuted, the victims, and for yourself and your people. Some don’t like that idea. But he also said you must stand up in a certain way. Others don’t like that idea. You must stand up to the oppressors in a way that will provoke them, but not strike back when they attack. That way is hard.

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

Most Christians, whatever their politics, can imagine having to do this themselves. The world threatens people and good things we must defend. 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. …

[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. …

Pope Benedict XVI Explains What We Do When We Love Our Enemies

What does “Love your enemies” mean? Why does Jesus ask us to love precisely our enemies, that is, a love which exceeds human capacities?

Christ’s proposal is realistic because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness. This “more” comes from God: it is His mercy which was made flesh in Jesus and which alone can “tip the balance” of the world from evil to good, starting with that small and decisive “world” which is the human heart.

This gospel passage is rightly considered the magna carta of Christian nonviolence. It does not consist in succumbing to evil, as a false interpretation of “turning the other cheek” claims, but in responding to evil with good and thereby breaking the chain of injustice.

One then understands that for Christians, non-violence is not merely tactical behaviour but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone.

Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the “Christian revolution,” a revolution not based on strategies of economic, political or media power: the revolution of love, a love that does not rely ultimately on human resources but is a gift of God, which is obtained by trusting solely and unreservedly in His merciful goodness. Here is the newness of the Gospel which silently changes the world! Here is the heroism of the “lowly” who believe in God’s love and spread it, even at the cost of their lives.

— Taken from his Angelus address, February 18, 2007 (slightly edited)

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.

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