Lesson 3 :: Non-Violence and Mass Civil Disobedience

King used a radical method to achieve social change. It worked.


In His Own Words

“Several things can be said about nonviolence as a method in bringing about better racial conditions. First, this is not a method of cowardice or stagnant passivity; it does resist. The non-violent resister is just as opposed to the evil he is protesting as the person who used violence.

“A second basic fact about this method is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.

“A third fact that characterizes the methods of nonviolence is that the attack is directed toward the forces of evil, rather than the persons caught in the forces. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

“A fourth point that must be brought out concerning the method of nonviolence is that this method not only avoids external physical violence, but also internal violence of the spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. We have learned through the grim realities of life and history that hate and violence solve nothing. Violence begets violence; hate begets hate; and toughness begets toughness. It is all a descending spiral, and the end is destruction — for everybody.

“A fifth basic fact about the method of non-violent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is this deep faith in the future that causes the non-violent resister to accept suffering without retaliation.”

— from “The Current Crisis in Race Relations,” an article written by King for the Christian publication New South March, 1958

“Yet a distorted understanding of nonviolence began to emerge among white leaders. They failed to perceive that nonviolence can exist only in a context of justice. When the white power structure calls upon the Negro to reject violence but does not impose upon itself the task of creating necessary social change, it is in fact asking for submission to injustice. Nothing in the theory of nonviolence counsels this suicidal course.”

— from “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast,” an article written by King for the Saturday Evening Post, November 1964

A Sacrificial Love

Martin Luther King, Jr., is best known for his non-violent resistance to segregation laws in the South. But through much of his public career, he was seen as “a troublemaking, glory seeking, self-promoting preacher whose racial opportunism was a plague on black-white relations,” as Dyson reports in his book, I May Not Get There With You. The rise of the Black Muslims and Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Power Movement led the white press to crown King — with his talk of love between the races and his turn-the-other-cheek activism — the “safe Negro leader.”

While many blacks considered non-violence cowardly, King’s method of social protest was anything but. Non-violent resistance took enormous emotional discipline and quite a bit of training.

  • Imagine marching arm in arm with others, singing “We Shall Overcome” as the police release vicious dogs trained to maim and kill. Imagine being hosed with streams of water forceful enough to break your ribs.
  • Imagine sitting at a lunch counter and having a gang spit on you, hit you, and smear food all over you.
  • Imagine trying to register to vote and having your home bombed, or your wife and children beaten.
  • Imagine being arrested, beaten to within an inch of your life, and being thrown into a prison cell built for four with 20 other people. No toilet, just a hole in the ground, rats, and no guarantee of emerging alive.


No, non-violent resistance took supreme courage and it wasn’t always successful. But it did prick the nation’s conscience and provide graphic images of America’s hypocrisy. “The land of the free” was (and still is) home to some of the most virulent racists outside of Nazi Germany and South Africa. The fact that King was able to convince thousands of Negroes — whose survival depended on allowing their personhood to be stripped from them every day of their lives — to stand up and return love for hatred, is nothing short of miraculous. Especially when the natural human inclination is to fight fire with fire.

King took the Gandhian non-violence methods that freed India from British rule, the civil disobedience advocated by Henry David Thoreau, and the “Love thine enemies, turn the other cheek and pray for those who spitefully use you” focus of Christianity and forged them into both sword and shield of a revolutionary struggle.

King never wavered in his commitment to non-violence as the way to transform American society, and even extended it to include resistance to the Vietnam War and to economic injustice. But he understood how despair over the situation in the ghettos of the large cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles could lead to riots.

Non-Violence? Not Always.

King was jailed dozens of times. He took physical and verbal abuse during demonstrations. His home was bombed. Yet he himself said that unless employed in a system that had as its base a moral conscience — such as the U.S., whose constitution reads, “All men are created equal . . .” — non-violence itself became suicidal. That’s why Nelson Mandela eventually abandoned non-violence in South Africa in favor of guerilla warfare against the government.

A Closer Look

With a hardheaded realism and transcendent faith, King led thousands of Negroes in the non-violent movement for equality. The equality issues of the 1960s were clearer than those we currently face. It is always instructive to ponder what King would have advised for today’s more complex issues.

How, for instance, would he address the inner-city public schools, which have never been effectively desegregated? In those instances where desegregation did take place, generally, black schools closed down and black children were bused out of their neighborhoods. What of the rollback of affirmative action? Those who oppose affirmative action programs say that special treatment is another form of racism that harms both races. But King himself spoke of the need to make up for hundreds of years of exploitation of African Americans.

While some say that the dominant crisis is class-based, that black people with money don’t experience racism, many books and news articles report the same old story. An African American man, even dressed in a $3,000 suit, has more difficulty in everything from hailing a cab to buying a house to advancing on the job — despite the occasional Colin Powell.

Look around you. You may see a number of seemingly small injustices that may yield to non-violent methods such as a boycott or direct social action. Private schools, good old boy clubs, lucrative businesses whose staffs show no diversity, police officers who routinely employ racial profiling — these exist all over.

Assignment: Non-Violence and Mass Civil Disobedience

Take a moment to think about everyday situations that we take for granted today that are possible because of Dr. King’s work: sitting wherever you choose on a bus; eating at the restaurant of your choice; being friends with whom you choose; and many other everyday opportunities we have access to but don’t think about much. King’s use of non-violent civil disobedience liberated all Americans. In your journal, write down five ways — other than what we’ve mentioned — that your life has been improved because of Dr. King’s work. Now, write about one social justice situation that may be improved using similar methods.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King said, “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace.” Visit http://www.mlkday.com/theman_index.htmlml and read the text of the speech. Does it contain any clues on how the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa might be resolved?

Published on January 5, 2008 at 4:25 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] it was on 9/11, and killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians can only make things worse. Greater men than I have spoken of the foolishness of violence. We cannot achieve peace by waging war. If there […]

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