The Philosophy of Nonviolence: The Lost Legacy of Martin Luther King

The 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. has come and gone. MLK Day is behind us. Yet there is no reason for us to stop talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. Of all the thinkers and heroic figures to have fought for and influenced the American experiment there is no one whose perspective is more important to guiding us through the trials of the current day than that of Dr. King. And sadly, there is no one whose true philosophy has been more obscured by the passing of time.

In a strange way both liberals and conservatives agree with this. You frequently hear people talking about “the real Martin Luther King, Jr.,” lamenting that the true substance of his intellectual legacy has been forgotten.

But in saying this, these critics rarely emphasize those elements of King’s teachings that were actually foundational to his mission in public life. On the left people bemoan King’s forgotten legacy as an activist for economic justice, his anti-militarism, his pro-union stance and his support for an active federal government. And so during the ritual of holidays and anniversaries where the nation pays its tributes to this martyr for love and justice, we frequently hear statements like this one from Salon magazine’s Chauncey DeVega, writing that King “was a radical leftist who strongly opposed the excesses of capitalism…” and wishing people would remember King for the political hardliner he presumably was.

On the right meanwhile, there is a tendency to talk about the lost legacy of King in terms of his forgotten faith and implicit patriotism. Conservatives like talk radio show host Michael Medved and others emphasize the fact that he was a preacher who believed in an overarching moral truth irrevocably connected to the will of God, and who spoke in admiring tones about Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and the need for America to live up to the values of its founding. This, they emphasize, stands in contrast to the rhetoric of those modern leftists who insist upon us casting our heritage aside in favor of one version or the other of state managed utopia.

There is truth in both of these views. Doctor/Reverend King was both an economic liberal and a committed Christian. He was a person who saw the need for radical reform of American political life while upholding many of the ideals of America’s founding documents. He was a man who, in the words of the Washington Post, “worked to turn back extremism, violence and racial nationalism at the height of the civil rights movement…” even as he stirred millions in opposition to the Vietnam War and in support of the creation of a national jobs program.

All these facts were brush strokes upon the larger portrait of Martin Luther King’s perspective. But to know only one, or even both, of these narratives is to miss what was truly remarkable in the worldview of Dr. King. It is to miss what is most applicable in it to our modern social struggles.

King arose as a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement through his leadership in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956. He was a mere 26 years old when the boycott began. In June of 1957 he was invited by the YMCA to speak to an audience at UC Berkeley about the bus boycott. He took the opportunity to talk about the philosophy that undergirded this successful protest, something that he called the “philosophy of nonviolence.”

He described the philosophy of nonviolence in the following way, saying:

“…that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding…our aim is not to defeat the white community, not to humiliate the white community, but to win the friendship of all of the persons who had perpetrated this system in the past. The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. A boycott is never an end within itself. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption.”

King followed this by saying that

“The nonviolent resister seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system. And this is why I say from time to time that the struggle in the South is not so much the tension between white people and Negro people. The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will not be a victory merely for fifty thousand Negroes. But it will be a victory for justice, a victory for good will, a victory for democracy.”

The point here is not that people do not remember that King was a nonviolent man. We remember that he stood for love and peace. Americans continue to admire his character. But that is no tribute at all to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a thinker. Dr. King was a gifted intellectual and every bit as legitimate a moral and social philosopher as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill (most of whom he was intimately familiar with). He drew much of his inspiration from Classical philosophy, from sophisticated theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhardt Niebuhr, and was well versed in the philosophical discourse of his time.

The difference between King and other philosophers is that, in at least one vital respect, he was greater than they were: in Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence he made definite assumptions about human nature and the malleability of societies that he actually tested via wide-scale social action. Whereas Kant’s Categorical Imperative (the maxim that we should “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law,”) remains a theoretical conceptualization subject to theoretical points of opposition, King’s assertion that the methodology of nonviolence “reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality” can actually be measured against the results of the implementation of this philosophical starting point that he himself provided. (By and large, the testimony of civil rights history is that his assertion was well founded.)

This is the way philosophy should be used — as the lubricant of creative imagination applied to the gears of individual and social action. Bitterly, the fact that King was a man of action is perhaps part of what makes it difficult for people to recognize the depth and value of his intellectual work. When it comes to moral idealizing we do not expect thinkers to be doers. King is known for having done great deeds, but not as much for having originated and articulated critical ideas.

This does give lie to the idea that the United States of America is in any great way committed to realizing the deeper implications of the perspective of Martin Luther King, Jr. in its own political society. Our politics today are very much about humiliation, after all. Which pundits on Fox News and MSNBC talk redemption, reconciliation and winning the friendship of people on the opposite side? Which politicians in the House of Representatives say that their goal is not to attack their opposition but merely to attack that which is wrong in the position the opposition has adopted? How many preachers and public intellectuals urge us, in words that King also spoke, to recognize that nonviolence “not only avoids external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit?” Precious few among our leaders political, intellectual and even religious say these sorts of things. Even among those who do, how many of them hold themselves to these standards day in and day out?

The answer again is few, both on the left and right, including among African-American leaders. Within the African-American community, left and right (as with political America broadly as we’ve seen), there are efforts to claim the legacy of Dr. King. Leftwing black activists claim King’s favor in advocating for social justice (a phrase that King more than anyone is responsible for seeding into popular consciousness) while black Republicans and conservative African-Americans often claim King was a Republican himself. (This claim, originating with what was probably an honest misremembering on the part of niece Alveda King, has been debunked and retracted by Mrs. King).

Yet, when it comes to seeking reconciliation with ones opponents, appealing to the conscience of the opposition, and actively conveying love and goodwill for those who stand against you both as an expression of moral conviction and with strategic intention to lay the groundwork for peace and understanding, one hears few echoes of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the rhetoric of most black conservatives. Attorney and talk radio show host Larry Elder is known not merely for his arguments but for his pugnacious take downs of liberals. Internet phenomenon Candace Owens, a rising star on the right, has become notable in part for “smacking down” and “destroying” Black Lives Matter and feminist activists on YouTube.

It is not to say that these individuals are uniquely damaging to our political discourse. It is only to say that they are unconcerned with King’s admonition to us not to humiliate each other, and his claim that “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit,” meaning that we must not only refrain from attacking each other physically, but that we must abstain from speaking and even thinking about each other in hateful or personally aggrieved ways. It is by thinking of our enemies with compassion that we strengthen ourselves to appeal to the better angels of their natures. This is not the approach of right wing pundits.

Nor is it typically the approach of left wing political agitators. Part of the difficulty here is that Dr. King set a high bar in terms of the proper moral tone of thought, speech and activism. Black activists on the left fall short of it. For all of the justifiable concerns that modern civil rights activists may have towards contemporary political society there is a tone of bitterness and anger riding alongside much of the culture of the Black Lives Matter movement (to say nothing of popular progressive movements like Occupy Wall Street, Antifa and others) that one could sympathize with but that bears no resemblance to the ethos of nonviolence. It is not to say that these movements are generally violent (though as pertains to Antifa that case can be made). Violence has however been associated with these and other organized left-wing movements of our time, from political mobs assaulting professors on college campuses to demonstrators destroying private property in urban centers. The occurrence of such incidents may not be characteristic of the activist left in general. Yet even if violence at Berkeley or Ferguson can plausibly be attributed to zealots within these camps who are unrepresentative of the broader movements, it would seem obvious that the spirit of these movements are bent more towards outrage and less towards reconciliation. In comparison, it is perhaps telling that the Nonviolent Movement rarely if ever produced individuals who would lash out violently during organized protests — even as exceptions to the rule.

So there is danger in falling short of that standard that King and other workers of understanding in our social discourse (in the African-American tradition and beyond) have refined. People right and left would do well to remember and remind one another of this. It is in that spirit that Princeton Professor Cornell West, his own left-wing bona-fides beyond dispute, has kindly admonished younger Black intellectuals like Ta-Nahesi Coates, saying:

“…this is why I struggle with my young brother Coates and a host of other young black intellectuals…I want to always check and see whether they’re true to the best of what black people have given the world. Have you wrestled with Du Bois, have you wrestled with C.L.R. James? Have you come to terms with the vision of Ella Baker? They didn’t live for nothing. The greatest contributions of black activists has been a spiritual and moral fortitude and by fortitude I mean the fusion of courage and magnanimity…

…If black people had decided to terrorize white brothers and sisters the way white brothers and sisters terrorized black people every generation there’d have been a civil war. If black people had decided to be black versions of the Ku Klux Klan…there would have been an authoritarian crypto-fascist America a long time ago. If black people had produced terrorists rather than Frederick Douglass and terrorists rather than Martin Luther King, Jr. and terrorists rather than Ella Baker there would be no Democratic experiment whatsoever.”

Movements are cheap in America. There is a new one every other year. Yet movements aimed at stabilizing the moral core of society in such a way that does not draw lines of division strictly along the axis of ideological inclination pertaining to political or economic policies (not to mention religious doctrines) are rare. Yet they have the power to transform societies in ways that call forth the best in individuals and institutions alike. This, it is easy to argue, was true with respect to the first and second century Christians who peacefully endured sporadic but brutal persecution at the hands of the Roman empire before finally witnessing the transition of the Roman state to the adoption of this pacifist faith (regardless of how quickly the nonviolent core of Christianity would be discarded and perverted later). This was true of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the movements to reform India’s oppressive caste system and for Indian independence. And this was true of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America, where not only did African-Americans and other minorities witness the most dramatic advancements in the area of political rights and equality that America had seen in a century, but where American culture itself shifted so as to embrace a universalist sense of human value with a fervor it never had before, vastly elevating the image of African-Americans in popular imagination in the process. For everything else that was not accomplished in the Civil Rights Movement (one may surely argue that significant problems in the area of political and legal equality endured beyond the length of the nonviolent movement) this remains true. These changes occurred primarily as a consequence of the implementation of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence.

“At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”

To speak in such high minded philosophical terms is to risk people not easily seeing the intellectual grounding running beneath such idealism. That is probably why (in the 1958 article in which King penned the above words) he continues to explain that love in this context is not affection, saying that it would be “nonsense” to ask people to have affection for their oppressors. “Love in this connection means understanding, redemptive good will.”

This is what we lack in our politics today. It is what we lack in much of western culture. Such understanding is always hard to come by because it is hard to generate. But when disciplined minds and heart set their energies upon it, the philosophy of nonviolence has shown itself to be effective in remedying divides that are even greater than that from which we suffer in our current era of polarization.

This is the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Now would be a good time to remember it.

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  1. the problem with King is that his example seems so unattainable to most people. people look at him, then they look at themselves and think “well I can’t reasonably be expected to live up to that standard!” and so they don’t really try. the story of King is that of a man who sprung onto the world stage with fully formed honorability and righteousness. people seldom follow his example (while paying much lip-service to him) for the same reason so many Christians seldom follow Christ’s example (while paying much lip service to him): it seems impossible to achieve.

    who I find to be a much more relatable example is Malcolm X. Malcolm the radical is the story most people like to focus on, but that’s just one part of his story. the middle part. the real story of Malcolm is that of continual personal growth and change. he starts out a criminal, finds his calling while in prison, bursts onto the national stage a firebrand with no qualms about violent rhetoric and ideology. it gives him his audience and position within his church. he’s the anti-King in a sense. but a funny thing happens through this journey: his perspective broadens. his journey gives him the opportunity to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, he prays in the company of people of all races, leading to his great epiphany that we’re all just people. he comes around to King’s way of thinking, and in his story we can watch that happen. because of that it’s easier to apply the lessons of his story to our own experiences and perspectives.

    it’s sadly ironic too, cause nobody felt threatened enough to assassinate Malcolm until he became a man of peace.

  2. Wonderful piece Mr. Wood Jr has written. This article needs to be shared and read widely.

    I have observed that with the phenomena of identity politics we keep hearing about, those who take part tend to seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent. This is true of the majority of participants, regardless of which side they sit on. We are also seeing this with the so-called “intellectual dark web” where the intellectuals tend to debate and discuss the issues with more substnace but still aim to degrade the ideas of and humiliate those they are disagreeing with.

    Dr. King’s words, “…the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding…” held resonance when he said them and hold just as much today. In seeing what has been going on in America and to a lesser extent here in the UK, I can’t help but feel we are increasingly losing something that plays a fundemental part of our democracies. I have struggled to define my own stance on this but Mr. Wood’s article and Dr. King’s words strike me as the perfect surmation of my own thoughts and ideas.

    This article is a welcome port in a stormy sea.

  3. Wood’s article inspires, reminds us all of the intellectual insights and advisements Dr. King employed in his speeches which greatly helped to cool a justifiable anger of amazing people who have been oppressed for too long—still experience to this day. I appreciate and enjoy reading Wood’s meaningful journalism contributions.

    Ava Dalley, you had me until you shared an internet site which only focuses on the negatives of a few people on the front lines who have to act, make difficult decisions within seconds.

    Police are fallible human beings. Try putting on a uniform which identifies as a walking target and face situations in which a snap judgement is made between your going home alive to your family or getting killed by a person who will not stop their crazed activity, will not comply to your commands to stop their defiant actions.

    Bad people exist in every profession. The site Dalley shares only focuses on cops who had to make quick decisions which may reflect either a bad cop or, more often, simply a bad decision made by a human being who was scared for their own life and self-preservation.

    Pockets of racism continue—some states, cities worse than others. Recent discoveries of the brain by neuroscience may help better train police, stop biased perceptions.

    Who or what is to blame for percentage numbers on Wikipedia which show blacks kill more blacks than any other kind of violence committed?

    How can I alone help others when my own life is full of challenges and at times the sadness of loss? The only way which seems sane is by the humanistic approach—not religious because its a god myth made up by primitive men. God gave instructions about slavery, war, misogyny;was against homosexuality —all from a so-called omnipotent god’s topic of concerns not relevant in today’s world.

    King and Gandhi were born into deeply religious cultures but they exalted the dogma by becoming great humanists. The world is in need of more humanists.

  4. Your article is spot on. Those on the left often bemoan the “lost legacy” of Dr King. Yet, it seems that they themselves do not understand his legacy. For me life and our society is like a rat race. You may win the race but that doesn’t make you any less of a rat. In an unjust world have the right skin color can help you be treated more fairly. Besides, discrimination and racism exists. And it hurts. But outrage is just not the way. I understand where many activists are coming from, but they give simple explanations to very complex issues. The enemy isn’t your fellow white citizen, it is politicians who use grief and resentment to gain votes, it is the media who harness the power of outrage to get more clicks and intensify social division, it is bankers who play with our economy.

    Racial profiling and police brutality is real. It exists and it hurts. It is true that police are more likely to target or use violence against black people. But in America, the police kills a lot and is very violent. Full stop. What is shocking to me is how desensitized to violence and excess most Americans are. I think if activists really want to understand police brutality, how people respond to it and police corruption, they should try look at it from a cultural, sociological and psychological angle. America is just not the same as countries like France and the UK. Its culture is much more extreme in all areas.

    Perhaps, the rate isn’t the same as black Americans. But there has been many white people killed by the police for no reason. But why do we never hear about it? Activists never stop to think about this which is a shame. If both white and black people realized that police corruption is an issue affecting everybody perhaps we would then be able to have some sort of unity. However, our entire elite class strive on division. The polarization of politics plus the growing tribalism is creating a backlash where many white people are embracing more extreme position. I believe that if we had civilized dialogue where we didn’t try to teach them a lesson, more would get our argument.

    Secondly, there has been a trend lately of reporting instance of the police being called on innocent black people. Again, the US has a population of more than 300 million. I’m not excusing the behavior, but I just want to put it into perspective. Additionaly, how do we know that this behavior is an increase or different from the past? Having more media coverage, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t there before. One could (rightly) be disappointed at the how casual racism can be. But there are other conclusion to reach. First, why is this covered NOW, at a time where tribalism is at an all time high and why not before? Plus, what kind of society is it when instead of talking to your fellow citizen you immediately call the police? To me this is a society who is relinquishing its individual freedom and doesn’t even realize it. The US is sliding into a police state and people are too busy focusing on racism to point the elephant in the room. Some will say that it is proof that we live in white supremacy, others that black people should comply more/ that it’s an isolated case. Anyhow, both are missing the point.

    The fact of the matter is that the media, especially left-wing media isn’t black people or minorities’ friend. At this point, it seems to me that they’re only trying to create a race war. And not just only in the US. In the UK, the Guardian is trying to create as much division as possible. It’s like dog-whistle but in reverse.

    Aside from this, I think many activists use a very narrow reading of sociology. The fact of the matter is that people have a natural tendency to be more comfortable with people that look like themselves while being uncomfortable/ distrustful of those that are different. Obviously, there some people who deviates from the norm. Knowing this add to the fact that black people represent only 10% of the US society. In the UK, black people are only 2%. WHat’s this mean is that there is a significant portion of the white population who had little to no contact with black people. Their only point of reference is through the media ( and notably politicians) who have a tendency to associate black to deviancy of one form or another. WHat I’m trying to say is that fighting racism would require far more strategic thinking than what is currently done by many activists. It is just a tremendous task. And throwing white privilege and white supremacy around and creating trending hashtags, especially at a time where the economy is worsening is just not the way to go.

    By the way, here is good website dedicated to police corruption among other things: https://thefreethoughtproject.com/


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