Dr. Martin Luther King on Nonviolence

In my post on the death of Congressman John Lewis, I mentioned that I had ordered a copy of the book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, by Dr. Martin Luther King. When it arrived, I read it cover to cover in a couple days. I found it both fascinating and informative. Published in 1958, it is from early in the Civil Rights movement timeline and it chronicles the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The final chapter is entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” This chapter begins with suggestions on what several different groups might do to help maintain the momentum begun by the boycott. The book then ends with a discussion about what “the Negro himself” must do going forward. This section of the book is a detailed essay on the idea of nonviolence and how it can be employed to ensure that Negroes are ultimately successful in their quest for equality.

I am so impressed by what Dr. King wrote that I feel no choice but to include it here in its entirety. So here, in his own words, is Dr. King’s passionate plea for Negroes in particular and the nation in general to embrace the ideals of nonviolence as they seek to promote the general welfare and the pursuit of happiness for all in the days that were to come. His message is every bit as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.


Finally, the Negro himself has a decisive role to play if integration is to become a reality.  Indeed, if first-class citizenship is to become a reality for the Negro he must assume primary responsibility for making it so.  Integration is not some lavish dish that the federal government or the white liberal will pass out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite.  One of the most damaging effects of past segregation on the personality of the Negro may well be that he has been victimized with the delusion that others should be more concerned than himself about his citizenship rights.

In this period of social change, the Negro must come to see that there is much he himself can do about his plight.  He may be uneducated or poverty-stricken, but these handicaps must not prevent him from seeing that he has within his being the power to alter his fate.  The Negro can take direct action against injustice without waiting for the government to act or a majority to agree with him or a court to rule in his favor.

Oppressed people deal with their oppression in three characteristic ways.  One way is acquiescence:  the oppressed resign themselves to their doom.  They tacitly adjust themselves to oppression, and thereby become conditioned to it.  In every movement toward freedom some of the oppressed prefer to remain oppressed.  Almost 2800 years ago Moses set out to lead the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the promised land.  He soon discovered that slaves do not always welcome their deliverers.  They become accustomed to being slaves.  They would rather bear the ills they have, as Shakespeare pointed out, than flee to others they know not of.  They prefer the “fleshpots of Egypt” to the ordeals of emancipation.

There is such a thing as the freedom of exhaustion.  Some people are so worn down by the yoke of oppression that they give up.  A few years ago, in the slum areas of Atlanta, a Negro guitarist used to sing almost daily: “Ben down so long that down don’t bother me.”  This is the type of negative freedom and resignation that often engulfs the life of the oppressed. 

But this is not the way out.  To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor.  Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.  The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber.  Religion reminds every man that he is his brother’s keeper.  To accept injustice or segregation passively is to say to the oppressor that his actions are morally right.  It is a way of allowing his conscience to fall asleep.  At this moment, the oppressed fails to be his brother’s keeper.  So, acquiescence – while often the easier way – is not the moral way.  It is the way of the coward.  The Negro cannot win the respect of his oppressor by acquiescing; he merely increases his oppressor’s arrogance and contempt.  Acquiescence is interpreted as proof of the Negro’s inferiority.  The Negro cannot win the respect of the white people of the South or the peoples of the world if he is willing to sell the future of his children for his personal and immediate comfort and safety.

A second way that oppressed people sometimes deal with oppression is to resort to physical violence and corroding hatred.  Violence often brings momentary results.  Nations have frequently won their independence in battle.  But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace.  It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.  It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.  The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.  It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.  Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love.  It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.  It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.  Violence ends by defeating itself.  It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.  A voice echoes through time saying to every potential Peter, “Put up your sword.”  History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow this command.

If the American Negro and other victims of oppression succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for freedom, future generations will be the recipients of a desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.  Violence is not the way.

The third way open to oppressed people in their quest for freedom is the way of nonviolent resistance.  Like the synthesis in Hegelian philosophy, the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites – acquiescence and violence – while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both.  The nonviolent resister agrees with the person who acquiesces that one should not be physically aggressive toward his opponent, but he balances the equation by agreeing with the person of violence that evil must be resisted.  He avoids the nonresistance of the former and the violent resistance of the latter.  With nonviolent resistance, no individual or group need submit to any wrong, nor need anyone resort to violence in order to right a wrong.

It seems to me that this is the method that must guide the actions of the Negro in the present crisis in race relations.  Through nonviolent resistance the Negro will be able to rise to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system.  The Negro must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as a citizen, but he must not use inferior methods to gain it.  He must never come to terms with falsehood, malice, hate or destruction.

Nonviolent resistance makes it possible for the Negro to remain in the South and struggle for his rights.  The Negro’s problem will not be solved by running away.  He cannot listen to the glib suggestion of those who would urge him to migrate en masse to other sections of the country.  By grasping his great opportunity in the South, he can make a lasting contribution to the moral strength of the nation and set a sublime example of courage for generations yet unborn.

By nonviolent resistance, the Negro can also enlist all men of good will in his struggle for equality.  The problem is not a purely racial one, with Negros set against whites.  In the end, it is not a struggle between people at all, but a tension between justice and injustice.  Nonviolent resistance is not aimed against oppressors but against oppression.  Under its banner consciences, not racial groups, are enlisted.

If the Negro is to achieve the goal of integration, he must organize himself into a militant and nonviolent mass movement.  All three elements are indispensable.  The movement for equality and justice can only be a success if it has both a mass and militant character; the barriers to be overcome require both.  Nonviolence is an imperative in order to bring about ultimate community. 

A mass movement of a militant quality that is not at the same time committed to nonviolence tends to generate conflict, which in turn breeds anarchy.  The support of the participants and the sympathy of the uncommitted are both inhibited by the threat that bloodshed will engulf the community.  This reaction in turn encourages the opposition to threaten and resort to force.  When, however, the mass movement repudiates violence while moving resolutely toward its goal, its opponents are revealed as the instigators and practitioners of violence if it occurs.  Then public support is magnetically attracted to the advocates of nonviolence, while those who employ violence are literally disarmed by overwhelming sentiment against their stand.

Only through a nonviolent approach can fears of the white community be mitigated.  A guilt-ridden white minority lives in fear that if the Negro should ever attain power, he would act without restraint or pity to revenge the injustices and brutality of the years.  It is something like a parent who continually mistreats a son.  One day that parent raises his hand to strike the son, only to discover the son is now as tall as he is.  The parent is suddenly afraid – fearful that the son will use his new physical power to repay his parent for all the blows of the past.

The Negro, once a helpless child, has now grown up politically, culturally, and economically.  Many white men fear retaliation.  The job of the Negro is to show them that they have nothing to fear, that the Negro understands and forgives and is ready to forget the past.  He must convince the white man that all he seeks is justice, for both himself and the white man.  A mass movement exercising nonviolence is an object lesson in power under discipline, a demonstration to the white community that if such a movement attained a degree of strength, it would use its power creatively and not vengefully.

Nonviolence can touch men where law cannot reach them.  When the law regulates behavior, it plays an indirect part in molding public sentiment.  The enforcement of the law is itself a form of peaceful persuasion.  But the law needs help.  The courts can order desegregation of the public schools.  But what can be done to mitigate the fears, to disperse the hatred, violence, and irrationality gathered around school integration, to take the initiative out of the hands of racial demagogues, to release respect for the law?  In the end, for laws to be obeyed, men must believe they are right.

Here nonviolence comes in as the ultimate form of persuasion.  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, or irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.

The nonviolent resisters can summarize their message in the following simple terms:  We will take direct action against injustice without waiting for other agencies to act.  We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices.  We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully because our aim is to persuade.  We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself.  We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.  We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to the truth as we see it.

The way of nonviolence means a willingness to suffer and sacrifice.  It may mean going to jail.  If such is the case the resister must be willing to fill the jail houses of the South.  It may even mean physical death.  But if physical death is the price that a man must pay to free his children and his white brethren from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive.

What is the Negro’s best defense against acts of violence inflicted upon him?  As Dr. Kenneth Clark has said so eloquently, “His only defense is to meet every act of barbarity, illegality, cruelty and injustice toward an individual Negro with the fact that 100 more Negros will present themselves in his place as potential victims.”  Every time one Negro school teacher is fired for believing in integration, a thousand others should be ready to take the same stand.  If the oppressors bomb the home of one Negro for his protest, they must be made to realize that to press back the rising tide of the Negro’s courage they will have to bomb hundreds more, and even then they will fail.

Faced with this dynamic unity, this amazing self-respect, this willingness to suffer, and the refusal to hit back, the oppressor will find, as oppressors have always found, that he is glutted with his own barbarity.  Forced to stand before the world and his God splattered with the blood of his brother, he will call an end to his self-defeating massacre.

American Negroes must come to the point where they can say to their white brothers, paraphrasing the words of Gandhi: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul force.  We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws.  Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.  Bomb our homes and threaten our children; send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities and drag us out on some wayside road, beating us and leaving us half dead, and we will still love you.  But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

Realism impels me to admit that many Negroes will find it difficult to follow the path of nonviolence.  Some will consider it senseless; some will argue that they have neither the strength nor the courage to join in such a mass demonstration of nonviolent action.  As E. Franklin Frazier points out in Black Bourgeoisie, many Negroes are occupied in a middle-class struggle for status and prestige.  They are more concerned about “conspicuous consumption” than about the cause of justice and are probably not prepared for the ordeals and sacrifices involved in nonviolent action.  Furthermore, however, the success of this method is not dependent on unanimous acceptance.  A few Negroes in every community, unswervingly committed to the nonviolent way, can persuade hundreds of others at least to use nonviolence as a technique and serve as a moral force to awaken the slumbering national conscience.  Thoreau was thinking of such a creative minority when he said:  “I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name – if ten honest men only – aye, if one honest man, in the state of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from the copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America.  For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be, what is once well done is done forever.”

Mahatma Gandhi never had more than one hundred persons absolutely committed to his philosophy.  But with this small group of devoted followers, he galvanized the whole of India, and through a magnificent feat of nonviolence challenged the might of the British Empire and won freedom for his people.             

This method of nonviolence will not work miracles overnight.  Men are not easily moved from their mental ruts, their prejudiced and irrational feelings.  When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged first react with bitterness and resistance.  Even when the demands are couched in nonviolent terms, the initial response is the same.  Nehru once remarked that the British were never so angry as when the Indians resisted them with nonviolence, that he never saw eyes so full of hate as those of the British troops to whom he turned the other cheek when they beat him with lathis.  But nonviolent resistance at least changed the minds and hearts of the Indians, however impervious the British may have appeared.  “We cast away our fear,” says Nehru.  And in the end the British not only granted freedom to India but came to have a new respect for the Indians.  Today a mutual friendship based on complete equality exists between these two peoples within the Commonwealth.

In the South, too, the initial reaction to Negro resistance has been bitter.  I do not predict that a similar happy ending will come to Montgomery in a few months, because integration is more complicated than independence.  But I know that the Negroes of Montgomery are already walking straighter because of the protest.  And I expect that this generation of Negro children throughout the United States will grow up stronger and better because of the courage, the dignity, and the suffering of the nine children of Little Rock and their counterparts in Nashville, Clinton and Sturges.  And I believe that the white people of this country are being affected too, that beneath the surface this nations’ conscience is being stirred.

The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor.  It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it.  It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.  Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.

I suggest this approach because I think it is the only way to reestablish the broken community.  Court orders and federal enforcement agencies will be of inestimable value in achieving desegregation.  But desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the ultimate goal which we seek to realize.  Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically.  But something must happen so to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.  In other words, our ultimate goal is integration which is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living.  Only through nonviolence can this goal be attained, for the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.

It is becoming clear that the Negro is in for a season of suffering.  As victories for civil rights mount in the federal courts, angry passions and deep prejudices are further aroused.  The mountain of state and local segregation laws still stands.  Negro leaders continue to be arrested and harassed under city ordinances, and their homes continue to be bombed.  State laws continue to be enacted to circumvent integration.  I pray that, recognizing the necessity of suffering, the Negro will make of it a virtue.  To suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanity’s full stature.  If only to save himself from bitterness, the Negro needs the vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure himself and American society.  If he has to go to jail for the cause of freedom, let him enter it in the fashion Gandhi urged his countrymen, “as the bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber” — that is, with a little trepidation but with a great expectation.

Nonviolence is a way of humility and self-restraint.  We Negroes talk a great deal about our rights, and rightly so.  We proudly proclaim that three-fourths of the people of the world are colored.  We have the privilege of watching in our generation the great drama of freedom and independence as it unfolds in Asia and Africa.  All of these things are in line with the work of providence.  We must be sure, however, that we accept them in the right spirit.  In an effort to achieve freedom in America, Asia, and Africa we must not try to leap from a position of disadvantage to one of advantage, thus subverting justice.  We must seek democracy and not the substitution of one tyranny for another.  Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man.  We must not become victimized with a philosophy of black supremacy.  God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in t he freedom of the whole human race.

The nonviolent approach provides an answer to the long debated question of gradualism versus immediacy.  One the one hand it prevents one from falling into the sort of patience which is an excuse for do-nothingism and escapism, ending up in standstillism.  On the other hand, it saves one from the irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling and the hasty judgment which is blind to the necessities of social process.  It recognizes the need for moving toward the goal of justice with wise restraint and calm reasonableness.  But it also recognizes the immorality of slowing up in the move toward justice and capitulating to the guardians of an unjust status quo.  It recognizes that social change cannot come overnight.  But it causes one to work as if it were a possibility the next morning.

Through nonviolence we avoid the temptation of taking on the psychology of victors.  Thanks largely to the noble and invaluable work of the NAACP, we have won great victories in the federal courts.  But we must not be self-satisfied.  We must respond to every decision with an understanding of those who have opposed us, and with acceptance of the new adjustments that the court orders pose for them.  We must act in such a way that our victories will be triumphs for good will in all med, white and Negro.

Nonviolence is essentially a positive concept.  Its corollary must always be growth.  On the one hand nonviolence requires noncooperation with evil; on the other hand, it requires cooperation with the constructive forces of good.  Without this constructive aspect noncooperation ends where it begins.  Therefore, the Negro must get to work on a program with a broad range of positive goals. 

…………..  (Here I am skipping eight paragraphs related to the “broad range of positive goals” that speak to economics, voting, personal standards, etc.  and little to the idea of nonviolence.  The last paragraph is then the last paragraph of the entire book.)  ……………………………………………………………       

This is a great hour for the Negro.  The challenge is here.  To become the instruments of a great idea is a privilege that history gives only occasionally.  Arnold Toybee says in A Study of History that it may be the Negro who will give the new spiritual dynamic to Western civilization that it so desperately needs to survive.  I hope this is possible.  The spiritual power that the Negro can radiate to the world comes from love, understanding, good will and nonviolence.  It may even be possible for the Negro, through adherence to nonviolence, so to challenge the nations of the world that they will seriously seek an alternative to war and destruction.  In a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war.  Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence.  It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.  The Negro may be God’s appeal to this age – an age drifting rapidly to its doom.  The eternal appeal takes the form of a warning: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”     

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