Martin Luther King – Non Violence? Really?

When I am told again that racial prejudice will end from non-violent means by people who haven’t read any work by Martin Luther King, I may begin my response with … well, you can guess. Before you prepare your Black History month lesson please start questioning what you think you know about the civil rights movement.

Let me start with some of the reading and interpretations of King’s work.

In his early work, specifically “Stride towards freedom”, he details what he calls the courageous use of the power of love. A later paper entitled ‘a pilgrimage to non-violence’, King refers to a Christian doctrine of love operating through a Gandhian method of satyagraha (which translates to the force of truth) and ahimsa (non-violence). This doctrine is based on the following six fundamental principles:

1. Resisting evil with non-violence 

2. Non-violence seeks ‘friendship and understanding’ of the oppressor 

3. Evil should be opposed, not the people committing the evil acts

4. One must be willing to suffer without retaliation 

5. Non-violence means that there’s a refusal to ‘shoot’ your oppressor and to hate him also and be motivated by love (agape).

6. Deep faith in the future and the universe is on the side of justice.

Here we have various tenets that all stand up to the idyllic ‘I have dream’ image, which is good for him. To turn the other cheek is a noble tactic, and I commend his faith in his Lord and religion. It seems that King deserves his place in the pantheon and the hagiographic type scripture written around him; When his family home was attacked in 1956, an unidentified man walked up to the house threw a bomb onto the porch of the building where his wife and newborn daughter slept. By the grace of God, no one was hurt in the explosion. Dr King remarkably responded to the gathering crowd with:

“I want you to love our enemies … “Be good to them, love them, and let them know you love them.”

Now, this is commendable. However, regardless of King’s level of forgiveness and non-violence, I fundamentally believe that progress toward racial equality would have occurred. I do not think that non-violence or even public disruption is the sole key to the liberation of People of Colour in our world. 

Do you agree? 

Let me ask. Is the only way to ensure people don’t continue to kill us? To allow them to murder us and hope that something will give their souls?

That all being said, in his previous writing, he does recognise that any response to violence as being:

“I am no doctrinaire pacifist. I have tried to embrace a realistic pacifism. Moreover, I see the pacifist position not as sinless but as the lesser evil in the circumstances.” (ibid, Pilgrimage to non-violence)

Personally, after centuries of demonstrating and observing systemic and individual oppression, I would think that the former colonisers and slave masters would have converted to a newfound love for the us’s long ago, and we’d be living in a relative dream, a beloved utopia. 

Honestly, you’d think that watching, reading and observing the deaths of hundreds, including a 6-month-old baby at Jallianwala. What about the hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu tortured and killed by our state? Would they not have reached the level of empathy needed? And it today’s world what about the black folx who dies in police custody or the disproportionate number of People of Colour incarcerated by our judicial system.

King’s whole rhetoric and doctrine are about appealing to your oppressor’s moral code, hoping that the majority of people will do the right thing when shown the error of their ways. Some folx may agree. I do not, but you know, you, do you. 

The difference between my ‘opinion’ and many people peddling their meme powered inpretations is that it comes from learning. I allowed myself to train critically and assimilate the knowledge through various lenses and read widely, and I still don’t claim to be right (if such a thing exists). As educators, do you give our students the same chances?

How Enamoured are you with Whiteness?

Racism will convince you into propagating its harm by 1. Selling you a sanitised version of the truth and giving you the confidence to defend it without having any rigour 2. Allow you to pick and choose within those versions of resistance that are acceptable and ignore or denounce those which are not 3. Create an environment of distraction which sees the victims as the aggressors and society as a perfect paradise.

Educators, you cannot pick and choose King’s doctrine. You even cannot claim to follow King’s brand of antiracism, the philosophy of non-violence or even to not be a racist and continue to teach and support a colonised curriculum. The ethnocentrism in our curricula fundamentally is a commitment to refuse to engage in the education which seeks to elicit empathy from the masses through the victims’ experiences. 

Dr King talks of the Greek concept of agape (love through understanding); I advocate agoge, a vision of training to resistance through unity. Agoge has a two-fold impact on teachers, building unity through awareness and critical thought through direct action, whether physical, economic or epistemic.

Non-violence has been co-opted by the societal status quo and centres People of Colour at the heart of their oppression. Putting the onus of liberty from oppression on the victims and their actions is problematic. 

Racism does not exist because of People of Colour. Racism exists because of White people. Anything else is victim-blaming. 

When a councillor stated that David Lammy and the way he behaves is the reason for racism, we have to start admitting why this appropriation and the parts of this method are so dangerous. 

Even if you believe that a Person of Colour’s actions are detrimental to their pursuit of liberation; As a white person, remember you benefit from that oppression; it is not your place to judge and certainly not to comment.

The Wider Movement

You can’t ever reach a man if you don’t speak his language. 

“If a man speaks the language of brute force, you can’t come to him with peace. Why, good night! He’ll break you in two, as he has been doing all along. If a man speaks French, you can’t speak to him in German. If he speaks Swahili, you can’t communicate with him in Chinese. You have to find out what this man speaks. And once you know his language, learn how to speak his language, and he’ll get the point. There’ll be some dialogue.”

Malcolm X

I believe violence should be met violence. We forget that all acts of resistance lead to pain for those challenging the societal norm. There is an actual cost for every single activist. We are quick to forget that Dr King was not revered but hated by most Americans during his lifetime and his struggle against his subjugation led to his eventual martyrdom. 

Responding in Kind

There is an overwhelming view that antiracists are racists in reverse (this doesn’t exist) or that resisting racism is a violence in the vein are both deliberate malicious falsehoods. I ask you if a criminal enters your house. You remove him, so he cannot hurt you and your family. 

Does that make you a robber?

Whiteness and Acceptable voices.

It is funny how we are quick to dismiss the teaching and omit certain voices in the liberation struggle when they do not serve the (that’s the societal status quos’ and whitenesses’) agenda, that lovely, polite little box.

Frederick Douglass stated that power concedes nothing without demand and that a good revolver is the best response to slave catchers. Hartman Turnbow, who fought off the KKK with rifle fire, stated beautifully.

“I wasn’t being non-nonviolent, I was just protectin’ my family” 

And Fannie Lou Hamer, who sums up the false dichotomy in its entirety.

“Baby you just got to love ’em. Hating just makes you sick and weak. I’ll tell you why. I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.”

Upholding White Supremacy through co-opting the Resistance.

If you are not wondering why sometimes we only teach the bits that fit. You probably haven’t read enough about the resistance of racism.

King himself wrote:

“Violence exercised in self-defence, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilised, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defence, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi.”

Martin Luther King, The Social Organization of Nonviolence 1959

As an educator, have you ever even thought about analysing our society, your organisation or your actions. Whiteness’s ideology will con you to the idea that challenging the norm is race-baiting and causing rifts. This idea of being divisive implies an existing whole, solidarity and unity. This doesn’t exist today, I promise you, and if you are white and were and are clueless, after reading this, I want you to ask yourself why you don’t understand how people are divided along the lines of race from conception.

Tactics of Silence

Be polite, watch you tone, act this way. The words of the oppressors may be in the vein of civility, and they may dismiss ours because our responses don’t flow from their place of power. When told to be polite (the etymology of these words says alot), watching our tone and our actions is ‘distraction’, and as we know, this is yet another function of white supremacy (Toni Morrison). 

Remember that violence is the same regardless of the response. Calling someone out for upholding white supremacy is worse than the initial act, it seems (reference: the whole world).

“In my travels in the North I was increasingly becoming disillusioned with the power structures there. I encountered the tragic and stubborn fact that in virtually no major city was there a mayor possessing statesmanship, understanding, or even strong compassion on the civil rights question. Many of them sat on platforms with all the imposing regalia of office to welcome me to their cities, and showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes. Yet when the issues were joined concerning local conditions only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal.” 

Dr Martin Luther King

I am suggesting that we teach students of colour how to navigate the world around them and engage in their resistance in all methods of protest. To do this without making the structure clear takes away from the students right to justice.

Thus, I am not disregarding appealing to the conscience and that using civility and politeness should be unequivocally rejected. When rejecting a scholar or your student’s words because their resistance doesn’t fit your version of ‘nice’ resistance. When our society (which we benefit from) is responsible for their wounds is hypocritical and yet another form and function of white supremacy.

That lovely little box of acceptable resistance has long been used as a bludgeon to action, and the state rarely accepts the hypocrisy of the same rejection of non-violence. In 1967, King tried to apply ahimsa to militarism and specifically the Vietnam war… Unsurprising, this caused King’s popularity to drop and his open rejection by the white masses. It seemed non-violence is only acceptable and applauded when People of Colour are counter-resistance. 

The prevailing thought is that Dr King was utterly against violence, well was he? During the last two years of Dr King’s life, there was a definite change in his tone and timbre around non-violence. 

King believed that people would find a militant middle between riots and the weak and timid supplication for justice. He states that civil disobedience can be ‘aggressive but non-violent’; ‘it can dislocate but not destroy’. The specific planning will take some study and analysis to avoid past mistakes when employed on too small a scale and sustained too briefly. (King, APA, 1967)

In a Mike Wallace 60 minutes TV interview in 1966:

“A riot is the language of the unheard”

This for me, doesn’t indicate a road to Damascus conversion. It points a movement toward a movement towards a more overt action of the root of the cause of all violence. RACISM.

“My hope is that it will be non-violent. I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive. I would hope that we can avoid riots, but that we would be as militant and as determined next summer and through the winter as we have been this summer.”

Dr King spoke at the APA’s Annual Convention in Washington, among the rise of white violence and the response to violence.

King recognises that the white majority is unwilling to accept structural racial change and cause chaos through their resistance and complain simultaneously that orderly transition would come if there were no chaos in Black opposition. 

That very same speech includes a call for social scientists, which in essence, all teachers are; he is talking to us when asks to address the white community and ‘tell it like it is.’ That White people have an appalling lack of knowledge concerning the lives of black folx. When a voice is unheard; What is left?

“Without a more effective tactic for upsetting the status quo, the power structure could maintain its intransigence and hostility. Into the vacuum of inaction, violence and riots flowed, and a new period opened.

“Urban riots must now be recognised as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community…”

A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

This speech was made shortly before his assassination, while it was still in galley proofs (final proof of an article). I take his late work to show his movement towards a more pragmatic, effective form and direct resistance.

I am not openly advocating physical violence. Remember, violence does not only exist within ones’ own hands and feet; even the act of reaching out to the authorities hoping that they will act in implementing a sanction, in other words, still enact violence against the perpetrators. (I would also point out in my experience and the disproportionate statistics around policing and the judicial system that the authorities are likely not to support the melanated victims, in favour of amplifying that violence, so I guess that was a bad example).

Resist epistemically or uphold the tiers of white supremacy there really isn’t a middle ground.

I will leave you with the words of Malcolm.

I don’t believe in violence – that why I want to stop it. And you can’t stop it with love.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.