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King and the Nonviolent Intellectual Tradition

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Most Americans gained fuller understanding of Martin Luther King Jr.’s moral and political philosophy through his televised August 1963 “I Have a Dream” address, delivered at the monumental March on Washington. At the core of King’s philosophy was the ideal of nonviolent action. For King, nonviolence meant that “we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

Martin Luther King Jr. addressing a crowd from the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.

(Photo by Courtesy the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command)

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But King’s emphasis on maintaining the moral high ground did not in any way mean that he was afraid of conflict. Indeed, nonviolence’s effectiveness was contingent upon its ability to dramatize the violence inherent to segregation; it was by attempting to exercise civil rights that African-Americans could demonstrate the extent to which white Southerners would not grant them. Nonviolent action—and the aggressive cruelty it solicited from segregationists—struck many Americans as frightening, and King did not attempt to diffuse their concerns. Rather, he affirmed that “this is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” He resolved that “there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.”

Americans listening to King’s “I Have a Dream” address could not help but recall with concern recent nonviolent action in the Birmingham civil rights campaign, a defining moment in the movement’s history. In Birmingham, peaceful protestors and their supporters were attacked by police dogs, children were forcibly separated from parents, grandmothers were attacked with high-pressure fire hoses. And much of this brutality had been captured on film by the national media. King’s address therefore pointedly expressed his hope that even in “Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

The violent suppression of the Birmingham campaign had made undeniable the need for legislation to protect the civil rights of all citizens. It was therefore with some satisfaction that the March on Washington celebrated the Kennedy administration’s endorsement of a federal civil rights initiative even as it continued to aggressively seek out new possibilities for liberation.

Jobs and Freedom
What has been somewhat overlooked by popular recollections is that the March on Washington at which King delivered his most famous speech was not only a movement for civil rights but a crusade for “jobs and freedom.” In King’s “I Have a Dream” address, he engaged the march’s mandate through the use of financial metaphors to define social and political obligation. America had “defaulted on this promissory note” of rights granted by the Constitution, had “given the Negro people a bad check,” and would not be permitted to return to “business as usual.” King argued that problems of race and class were intimately related, as residents of the “slums and ghettos of our northern cities” were well aware. He resolved that “we can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1964, King would return to the commitments he expressed in the March on Washington to redirect his organization’s efforts to the problems of economic inequality in the urban North. Most spectacularly, King and colleague Ralph Abernathy brought publicity to the problem of poverty when they moved into one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. They encouraged neighbors to withhold rent from landlords who did not provide adequate heating, plumbing, and electricity, and created new tenants’ organizations. Dramatizing the problems of poverty through nonviolence was not dissimilar to dramatizing the problems of segregation; in the North, it was only by applying for jobs and apartments that African Americans could demonstrate the systematic nature of their exclusion from economic mobility. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Operation Breadbasket also worked to more widely disseminate traditional community organizing techniques, including the principle of “don’t buy where you can’t work.” Gradually, industry after industry began to hire African-American employees for higher-paying service, clerical, and production positions from which they had previously been excluded.

For King, America’s failure to take responsibility for its most impoverished citizens also illuminated the implications of international militarism. In the capacity of a Nobel Prize winner with international standing, King began to express his concerns about the war in Vietnam. He emphasized both how wartime expenses crippled the Johnson administration’s capacity to wage a war on poverty, and the extent to which this conflict aligned American citizens with the aims of colonialism instead of liberty.

When King went to Memphis in April 1968 to help coordinate a campaign to relieve the conditions of African-American workers and the problems of urban poverty and joblessness, he did so as a lightning rod for publicity. Success in Memphis, King hoped, would inspire greater support for a new project to which he was greatly devoted: the Poor People’s Campaign. Over the course of the previous 13 years King had dedicated himself to the civil rights movement, had been the subject of intense public scrutiny and F.B.I. wiretaps, had been physically attacked numerous times, had gone to jail 29 times, and had survived several attempts to bomb his home. He had mourned the murders of colleagues, activists, and bystanders, and had been stunned by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. King had received an uncountable number of death threats, and cultivated a resigned sense that his eventual assassination was more than likely. The violent trials of a nonviolent advocate ceased when King was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room on April 4, 1968.

A Controversial Leader
In most American classrooms and public celebrations, King is remembered as a preacher and organizer of rare ability and character. Millions of schoolchildren hear how his boyhood experiences of segregation in Atlanta saddened King, are told that Dr. King was the civil rights movement’s most important leader, and are reassured that King believed that black and white Americans should work together for social change. All of this is true. King was one of the most brilliant and innovative leaders in a movement of extraordinary significance for all Americans.

However, historians and many of King’s activist contemporaries also argue that waxing nostalgic about King in this manner is nonetheless of concern because of what it leaves out, and what it implies. Specifically, King-centered accounts of the civil rights movement minimize the role of local organizers who registered and canvassed voters, organized protests, and placed their bodies on the line. They also tend to de-emphasize King’s own radicalism. Clayborne Carson, editor of the King Papers Project, has repeatedly argued that “King was a controversial leader who challenged authority and who once applauded what he called ‘creative maladjusted nonconformity.’ He should not be transformed into a simplistic image—designed to offend no one—a black counterpart to the static, heroic myths that have embalmed George Washington as the Father of His Country and Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.”

In their most problematic forms, memorializations of King can suggest that all we need do is wait for “another King” to come and save us from ourselves. And this seems largely inconsistent with King’s own understanding of what mass movements should be and do. Democracy, King urged, brought with it a moral obligation for each citizen to advance justice. We should be challenged by the call of Coretta Scott King: “Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not only for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service.” Nonviolence is not about passivity but action, and honoring King should not be about vacation but about commitment.

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