Each year, Americans remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as an inspirational orator who exhorted them to live up to their most generous ideals.
Guardians of King’s legacy — such as the radical sociologist and activist Michael Eric Dyson — cringe at this depiction. They complain that the media focus on anodyne excerpts from King’s famous “Dream” speech, which distort his true message and legacy: an urgent demand for long-overdue economic justice and power.
Dyson and other public curators of King’s memory appropriately remind people that King pursued a distinctly leftist program, including alliances with a then-powerful labor movement and a militant dedication to equality in housing and the criminal justice system — two areas where racial inequalities have in many ways become more pronounced than they were in King’s day.
But even their more radical interpretation of King’s message tends to dull and displace the great power that King’s life properly symbolizes. What distinguished King is not the ends he articulated, but the means he crafted, tested and perfected in pursuit of those ends.
The protests of the 12-odd years of his short public career, from December 1955 to April 1968, led to rare, even revolutionary achievements: the 24th Amendment, which banned the use of poll taxes to block people from voting; new judicial interpretations that restored the full power of the 14th and 15th amendments; and the sweeping civil rights acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968. The aspirations were old and familiar. What was new was how swiftly they were brought closer to fulfillment — closer than ever since the Civil War.
King’s supporters and critics alike at the time recognized that “nonviolence” — which was a method rather than a goal — was the heart of his work and his rhetorical appeals. But they generally misunderstood this tactic.
They mistakenly assumed that nonviolent protesters appealed to an intrinsic goodness in all human beings, even the beneficiaries and defenders of an oppressive system. They thought that nonviolence was a form of political theater to move people unto sympathy with the downtrodden. Peaceful victims, sometimes at prayer, could, if conditions were right, gain wide sympathy when attacked by ruthless mobs, police dogs and fire hoses.
But King was impatient with that sort of appeal to people’s guilt and pity. For him, the key lesson came from India, where nearly 400 million people liberated themselves from the British Empire in 1947: Successful nonviolent campaigns were coercive mass movements, not hat-in-hand pleas for mercy.
In the autobiographical chapter of his first book, King wrote that he had ended his formal education in 1955 with all his influences converging into a “positive social philosophy,” which emphasized “the conviction that nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.”
He quickly implemented that philosophy in Montgomery, Ala. The Montgomery Boycott of 1955-1956 aimed to force the bus company and the city government to change their policies without anyone raising a fist. Nonviolent though it was, the movement carried a stick. Until the bus company caved, it would suffer declining revenue, a federal lawsuit and a compromised investment climate in the downtown business district.
The surprising success of that effort revealed that King’s nonviolence was, above all, a practical technique. King called it active resistance, in contrast to the more familiar term, “passive resistance,” which he said “gives the false impression that this is a do-nothing method.”
King rebelled against the pacifist attitudes that so many liberal Christians in his day embraced. To King, conventional pacifism required too much faith in human goodness. King believed that pacifists’ moral purity also imbued their cause with a self-righteousness that alienated the ordinary masses that he identified with. Pacifists refused to acknowledge the moral dilemmas that ordinary people faced: Force was often necessary, for example, to free slaves, defend the defenseless or halt the expansion of mass-murdering regimes.
King believed that his “militant,” “coercive” and “realistic” version of nonviolence overcame the weaknesses of pacifism and passive resistance. Perhaps more important, King sensed that his tactics would appeal to practical masses of black Southerners who knew that trying to shoot their way to victory was suicide. They were vastly outnumbered and outgunned.
His tactics also provided a method for forcing change at a time when the experience of protest had radicalized the black masses. Facing death in many places, black activists had to rely on their own ranks and their own individual power and fighting spirit. Boxers Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson were models of inspiration whom King invoked as heartily as he invoked Jesus and Gandhi.
Yet some of King’s most prominent African American rivals, including Robert F. Williams, author of the sensational “Negroes with Guns,” as well as Black Panther spokesmen such as Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, either misrepresented or failed to comprehend his methods. Perhaps deliberately, they pretended that King trained people to let criminal vigilantes or lawless police abuse them without resistance.
In reality, King and his fellow nonviolent leaders did not expect personal purity, as pacifists would. They just expected, and generally got, discipline from their troops — the standard of a conventional army or political party — for the duration of the collective action.
Their nonviolent armies did not helplessly wait to be attacked. They seized the initiative. They determined the timing and set the terms of engagement. They sought the weak points in their enemies’ defense and self-confidence. They contacted and prepared reporters to ensure the most advantageous coverage.
In the last years of his life, King and his closest followers believed they had barely begun. He argued that Negroes must “unite” around programs to “eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice.” After all, history taught that “evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of an almost fanatical resistance.”
Even as the challenges persisted, King employed the same tactics that he had used in Montgomery in 1955 and 1956. In his last year on Earth, King planned a massive “Poor People’s Campaign” to occupy the nation’s capital. The goal was to force Congress to eliminate discrimination in the private housing market and to allow the vast, multiracial “underclass” access to the education and opportunities that upper-class Americans took for granted.
The poor needed not only a fair share of national income, but power.
King sought, for example, to organize tenant unions to give renters leverage over rapacious landlords and welfare unions to circumvent the humiliation and “bureaucratic abuse of welfare recipients.” He fought for an “economic bill of rights to supplement the Constitution’s political bill of rights.” He argued that after three “long hot summers” of rioting, Congress — and its privileged constituencies — still needed to be pushed. If Congress failed to respond when inner-city residents attempted change by nonviolent means, King gravely contended, these national policymakers would be responsible for further urban death, destruction and damage to the country’s reputation abroad.
To the very end, King emphasized that disciplined, nonviolent action was coercive action. Nonviolence, properly understood, gave poor people leverage to force unwilling opponents to give up their privileges against their will.
When masses organized to withhold their buying power in boycotts, their labor in strikes, their rent in tenant strikes, then their numbers translated into overwhelming force against the few who exploited them. When they united their bodies more aggressively in the public eye, they did not merely call attention to the shameful and unseemly brutality of those who defended the status quo, they maneuvered their exploiters into public embarrassment and accountability. When they filled the paddy wagons and jails, they vastly raised the cost of enforcing oppressive laws that degraded and deprived them. As poor people, they had the strange freedom of people who have nothing to lose.
Over the years of King’s activism, black people in Montgomery, Birmingham and other Southern cities had learned the power of these tactics. At the time he died, King hoped that other poor people would gain the same kinds of experience and knowledge.
Echoing Frederick Douglass, as he often did, King stressed in 1967, “What we knew daily in the South: Freedom is not given, it is won.”
The nonviolent army never won it all. It never won anything permanently. Nonviolent soldiers, just like conventional ones, had setbacks and reversals, unpredictable disappointments and defeats. But they succeeded in pressuring an unwilling Congress and White House to act where none had acted since the 1870s.
They were not merely expressing dissent. In their nonviolent resistance to the twin evils of poverty and racism, they were playing offense, not defense.