‘ I have condemned any organizer of war, regardless of his
rank or nationality. ‘ – Martin Luther King, Jr.
‘ All history teaches us that like a turbulent ocean beating great cliffs into fragments of rock, the determined movement of people incessantly demanding their rights always disintegrates the old order. ‘ – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This column is dedicated to the victims of the Tucson massacre, to Judge John Roll, to Christina Green, and to Gabrielle Giffords, and to all the other victims of senseless violence, including those innocents who fell in Tunisia, on this day, a day that celebrates an apostle of non-violence.
The news in the past week has been dominated by the way peaceful Tunisian crowds overthrew their dictator on the one hand (despite dozens of them being shot dead by secret police), and by the Tucson massacre and the national debate on violent political imagery and on the place of guns in American society on the other. It is worthwhile remembering on this day another debate on gun violence. Just as today some argue that Americans are only safe from their government if they stock up on AK 47s, so some African-Americans maintained in the 1950s and 1960s that the only way to face down the Ku Klux Klan and other such organizations was for them to be armed. But the Tunisian people were not notably armed, and Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali was not chased out of the country by assault rifles, but by enormous, non-violent crowds of protesters.
At the conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1959, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. debated Robert F. Williams on non-violence. Williams later authored Negroes with Guns, helped inspire the Black Panthers, sided with North Vietnam, and lived in Cuba and China. (He later helped Nixon open China and was allowed back in the US in consequence.)
King wrote [pdf] “The Social Organization of Non-Violence” in response to Williams’s insistence on the usefulness of firearms to the freedom struggle of African-Americans.
Dr. King saw the resort to firearms as anarchic and individualistic, and ultimately episodic. He contrasted it to a long-term, collective movement of non-violent action that would be far more likely to succeed:
‘ It is axiomatic in social life that the imposition of frustrations leads to two kinds of reactions. One is the development of a wholesome social organization to resist with effective, firm measures any efforts to impede progress. The other is a confused, anger-motivated drive to strike back violently, to inflict damage. Primarily, it seeks to cause injury to retaliate for wrongful suffering. Secondarily, it seeks real progress. It is punitivenot radical or constructive. ‘
King saw the resort to firearms by African-Americans in facing down the widespread violence against them as extremely dangerous, aware that it would make it easy for white bigots to deploy stereotypes of African-Americans as inherently dangerous and violent. He also deplored firearm violence as an impediment to more important forms of collective action, since it could make people lazy and convinced that it was all that they needed.
‘ In the history of the movement for racial advancement, many creative forms have been developed-the mass boycott, sitdown protests and strikes, sit-ins,-refusal to pay fines and bail for unjust arrests-mass marches-mass meetings-prayer pilgrimages, etc. Indeed, in Mr. Williams’ own community of Monroe, North Carolina, a striking example of collective community action won a significant victory without use of arms or threats of violence. When the police incarcerated a Negro doctor unjustly, the aroused people of Monroe marched to the police station, crowded into its halls and corridors, and refused to leave until their colleague was released. Unable to arrest everyone, the authorities released the doctor and neither side attempted to unleash violence. This experience was related by the doctor who was the intended victim. ‘
Historians of the South have made a convincing case that many African-Americans were armed in the 1950s and 1960s, and that often they were able to face down the Klan and other reactionary forces by getting out their guns. But with regard to the great social movement of Civil Rights, it was largely pursued by King’s methods, of non-violent non-cooperation. Williams’s way would have led to a bloody race war, or to much more of one than actually was fought.
We honor Dr, King every year for his Dream speech, but let us not reduce him to one issue. He is a worthy guide to being good Americans in the twenty-first century on a whole range of other values, as well. His contempt for ‘organizers of war,’ is worth remembering in 2011, as the futility of Great Power wars of choice has been demonstrated yet again by the Iraq debacle, and as the US winds down its troop presence in that country and declares the war altogether over. Rev. King’s conviction that non-violent, loving, non-cooperation with social evils like bigotry was the only practical way forward, is, like his contempt for plotting out wars, worthy of emulation. When we’ve all internalized these two values championed by Rev. King, the United States of America and the world will be better places.