Every year the third Monday of January is designated as a federal holiday in the United States in honour of Martin Luther King Jr. Aside from Gandhi, King’s name is the one most often associated with nonviolent civil disobedience. But his legacy is misunderstood if this is the end of the discussion and if the context within which his tactics were successful is left in the dustbin of history.
There are a vast number of articles and editorials written about King and nonviolence, and I am certainly not setting out to disparage King’s saint-like qualities and self-sacrifice or to dispute the fact his tactics and strategy were firmly rooted in a Christian form of nonviolent civil disobedience. However, King was acutely aware that the racial tensions resulting from a history of slavery and segregation in the United States had reached a critical stage and that something needed to be done if all-out racial violence was to be contained.
On the one hand, the status quo of racial segregation was protected by not only various levels of federal, state, county, and municipal governments, but also by other social institutions (churches, schools, universities, etc.). On the other hand, the militant revolutionary message of Black Nationalist groups, such as the Nation of Islam (epitomized by Malcolm X) and later the Black Panthers, struck a chord with a generation of alienated and disaffected youth.
This complex social situation is perhaps best summed up by King himself in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written to members of the Birmingham clergy and religious community who had urged patience and restraint of the civil rights movement. Of the Black Nationalist movement, King notes,
The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.” 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.
King, in this light, is quite consciously offering a middle way, one that addresses the vast inequalities of segregation but stops short of calling for violent confrontation with the American government. Note, however, that King is not suggesting that nonviolent civil disobedience is a tactic that plays within the rule of law but that, by definition, it acts outside the law: in the letter he clearly states that his strategy is to purposefully break laws that are unjust. The important point here is that the tactics employed by King’s movement for civil rights were successful, in the long-term, because they resolved an explosive situation that wasn’t going away in a manner that was infinitely more acceptable to the status quo than the revolutionary path advocated by Black Nationalists. He offered a simple choice: witness your country ripped in half and descend into chaos, or follow this middle path of reform and civil rights.
It is in this same sense of a middle path that Gandhi famously said, “nonviolence is a weapon of the strong.” This is not to say that nonviolence is always the correct tactic, something for pacifists with a strong sense of moral certitude to consistently follow regardless of the context. Rather, this statement means that nonviolence is a tactic best employed by protest and resistance movements that are in a position of strength. King’s civil rights movement, similarly to Ghandi’s independence movement, found itself in a position of strength—and in fact drew strength from the more militant Black Nationalists.
Viewed through this historical lens, it is difficult to understand the reluctance of the status quo to immediately accommodate King and the civil rights movement, given the civil war-like situation inherent in the alternative. Nonetheless, King found himself waylaid and stymied at every turn, and not only by those who outright rejected the moral arguments of civil rights but also by those he considered moderate in the white community. In the following extract from his letter, he goes so far as to suggest that these moderates were in fact the root of the problem:
Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
It was not the reactionary mentality of those groups who wished to maintain segregationist policies that caused the civil rights movement the most trouble, but rather the moderate “allies” of the movement who urged restraint.
It is in this regard that the context of King’s struggle and his legacy of civil disobedience are most often misunderstood. It was not the reactionary mentality of those groups who wished to maintain segregationist policies that caused the civil rights movement the most trouble, but rather the moderate “allies” of the movement who urged restraint. King understood that this call for restraint from moderates fuelled the fire of revolutionary fervour and gave credence to the arguments of the Black Nationalists. He also saw that in the absence of authentic change the situation would very quickly come to a head. The Kennedy administration was also keenly aware of the explosive situation, so much so that the 1963 March on Washington, when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, was given support by the government. The next year the Civil Rights Act (1964) was passed into law and went some way to diffusing racial tensions in the U.S., though all of this became reality because, in no small measure, the alternative was unthinkable for those in power.
There are many parallels between the history of the civil rights movement and protest movements today. The same sorts of calls are made by moderate “allies” for restraint whenever protest groups, for example, block roads or disrupt economic activity. Those moderates who are apparently in favour of the goals of environmental or social justice movements are quick to decry the tactics employed and say things like, “well they just can’t go around breaking the law.” Leaving aside the question of violence (such as whether it is violent to disrupt traffic), it is the moral certitude of those who say wait and who urge restraint that sap the fighting spirit of those who desire change. In the face of an onslaught against the natural world and against civil society in Canada, it seems correct to say, as Howard Zinn put it, that “our problem is civil obedience.”