King on Guns, War and Non-Violence as a Social Movement

‘ 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.

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27 Responses

  1. And then we get this shit from the Department of War, Slaughter and Torture in Washington:
    King Might Understand Today’s Wars, Pentagon Lawyer Says

  2. When all else fails to make sense, I get on my ATV and go for a ride in the Date Creek Mountains a mile or so north of where I live which are the result of volcanic activity who-knows-how-many years ago, but haven’t lived long enough to be worn smooth like you see on the east coast. I call them “Dragon Mountains.”

    My point is that planet earth herself takes violent action, not everywhere, but at certain places at certain times for who-knows-what-reason. Thus the idea of universal peace seems a great fantasy. Perhaps the best we humans can accomplish is peace at certain places at certain times.

  3. […] What King taught us is that change doesn’t come from the top. It comes from the people. But there is a people’s movement going on right now that seems benighted to me, goaded not by truth but by propaganda constantly being spewed from the media. King also taught us that power does not come from the end of a gun. […]

  4. “When we’ve all internalized these two values championed by Rev. King, the United States of America and the world will be better places.” Professor Cole.


    I would like to add one more non-violence method of fight that was led by Qaid e Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, against British during undivided India.

    He fought with British in their courts with their laws, their books & won. British were never able to come up with any charges against him to arrest him and put him in jail. He was the only leader in India unlike others; British could not lay hands on him.

  5. And, as Mao said, in the long-term it is the people who are powerful and “all reactionaries are paper tigers”. In that same passage, he was also clear in noting the bombs and bureaucracies of countries like the US were very real and had to be respected.

    I’m not arguing with MLK or this perspective, and with new technologies the social dynamic has changed with the power to empower a more bottom-up governance. But the conflict between rulers and ruled has existed for a long time, and the will to power is not going away. The stage and form of conflict may change, but the song will remain the same.

    In this country, and with mukabarats (sp) around the world, there is evolving a far more nuanced application of force/technology to maintain power, and that’s what people need to wake up to, and make plans based on. Protest is not only sanctioned but encouraged, and closed-circuit tapes patiently made and assessed, leadership and organizers identified. Same with blogs like this and a handful of others, whose servers (with email addresses/identities) can be penetrated very efficiently by routine National Security Letters. All this can be done very simply, economically, and discretely, thanks to these same modern technology, and accommodating legislation. A couple hundred select “citizens of interests” could easily be rounded up in a single nite to join Jose Padilla, the substantive difference in their cases mattering not one whit.

    We are all very comfortable at this moment, on this road. The US is a rich country, and most of us are just tinkering around, people with some degree of interest that doesn’t promise any real action or make much of a threat to the powers that be. But when the mass starts to build, look out. There is not the pressure to draw a knock on ours doors, at least today. But, off to the edge of this current road is a sheer precipice. And the guns and bureaucracy we will face then, which is the one we can see know, will be very real. This is our history.

  6. Travis: “But when the mass starts to build, look out.”

    According to Chomsky in “hopes and prospects” this generates the “fear of the good example” which stimulates the power possessors to clamp down on not only those who are starting to build, but the reporting of such building by the media.

  7. On the whole it seems that Americans have a neurotic attitude towards violence (sorry, Juan, for the national prejudice here).

    In an earlier posting you mentioned the American attitude to firearms. Now, there are lots of firearms out in northern Scandinavia and Canada too. They are used exclusively for hunting and considered as economic tools like e.g. fishing rods. They are not symbols for sexuality or pride or whatever. Why can’t Americans grow up?

    What is your theory? Mine is that the neurosis has to do somehow with the extreme inequality paired with an inability to see structural class divides. People don’t feel well but can’t understand why. So they look at the world from the good-evil divide and invent imagined enemies they believe they can keep at distance with firearms.

    Or do you have a better alternative?

    • Don;t know that it explains everything, but the big O was mighty astute referring to the rura hardscrabble clinging to their guns and religion. I expect this could be related to the post here last week, about the psycho-pathology of nations, referring specifically to Israel.

      What is fascinating the more you look at, and read into it, is the power of group processes. Absent a orienting peer group, people are forced to make up minds based on biases, but also draw heavily on experience and rational thought. But even with the benefit of a good education, meaning a solid understanding of rhetoric, statistics, and the scientific method, the influence of the group can, and often will, sweep them off their feet. We’re a social animal, for better or worse. To feel the power, for a relatively benign example go to a big time college or pro football game. Or to get really depressed, read the story of those who somehow survived Jonestown, about how an awful lot of people drank the koolaid when it was NOT what they wanted to do, sheerly due to the power of the group. And this assumes American exceptionalism, without bringing up WW II. These are deep, murky and scarey waters.

    • @Jan – I take it you have not been back for a while. You should read “Jyllandsposten” and I think you will find that despite our ban on handguns in Denmark, the firearms violence is increasing (has increased 10 fold since 2004) and there is no real solution in sight. The same appears to be happening in Swededn. Only Norway has managed to keep it at bay (though not completely).

      As far as Americans are concerned, there is a tendency to aslways go to extremes and always get offended or up in arms about everything. A couple of examples:

      1. I have many friends with many opinions as it pertains to gun control. Most notably, they are all highly polarized on the issue and are not able to debate the subject rationally. It is either no guns allowed or no restrictions because of the second amendment. No middle ground for them.

      2. A very good friend of mine is African-American. Tall, beautiful, blond & Blue eyed. Her mother is South African and her father American. Her best friend was here visiting and was almost attacked by a couple of women when she noted how many colored people there were here (she is colored, not black which is a very important distinction in South Africa).

      3. You either hate or love Barak Obama/Rush Limbaugh/Hilary Clinton etc. You are either a Right wing conservative or a left wing Liberal, you are either with me or against me. All of these positions are extreme, and seldom well thought out or backed by unbiased and logical reason.

      If people would look at the problem and work out a solution together in a sane and cohetent manner, if they would stop getting offended about petty crap and if they would stop dismissing other opinions because the person doesn’t agree with them 100%, life would be a lot simpler. To accomplish this, a couple of things would need to happen.

      1. They need to educate the people. Not just the three R’s but a real education that includes world history, philosophy, civics, etc.

      2. They need to help those who have nothing get into a situation where they too can have the necessities for a good life (not social welfare, but help get them set up so they can be productive members of society and be proud of what they do).

      3. They need to reel in compensation packages of those who are at the other end. Sports personalities, bank presidents, Insurance compay executives, making 10 figures is ridiculous. I am all for compensation, espeially for those who have invested heavily in an education but paying some illiterate moron a million dollars to throw a football, paying an accountant a million dollars when his bank has lost millions and had to be bailed out by the government is simply ludicrous.

      My $0.02


      • A critical education that at least gives people the tools of discernment appears to be the only course. Even then, stupidity ultimately is trump, but at least people would not be so dumb, and they are arguing from relatively firm premises: It gives society a fighting chance. As people become relatively well informed, however, we are still left with immature/foolish values and judgement. Which, if open-minded, leads to the attractions of the benevolent master (wasn’t that Rousseau?). And THAT is the vision these fellow travelers to the neocons are so drawn to: see how well the Chinese are doing, after all? The unitary executive and all that.

      • I don’t believe Jyllandsposten, which is a scare-mongering anti-immigrant libel. I rather believe in official statistics according to which we, like almost all European countries, have about 10 murders a year per million people, like we always have had.

        Most of these, also, occur in the big cities and are committed by drunk people, while the guns – or rifles – mostly belong to the countryside.

  8. Over at Democracy Now
    Amy Goodman has a great interview up with Tavis Smiley focused on some of Rev. Kings more critical words about the militarism of the U.S.

    link to

    AMY GOODMAN: That was Vincent Harding, who helped write that speech for Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4th, 1967, that he delivered at the Riverside Church, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

    AMY GOODMAN: “The greatest purveyor of violence on earth today, my own government.” Let’s go to a little more of Dr. King’s speech that day.

    REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

    A true revolution of values will lay a hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

    America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

    AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley, if you would reflect on this less famous speech of Dr. King, not the “I Have a Dream” speech, but that speech he gave even against the advice of his inner circle, who said, “You will the support of the leadership in America that is supporting you on civil rights,” when he said, “I must deal with violence abroad, as well as violence at home.”


  9. Its not widely known but very important to know that King, through the struggle, shifted his understanding of nonviolence as a tactic, not a principle. He said in a speech, quoting JFK, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”
    He also was for Revolution, the shift of the system from ‘for profit’ to ‘for people’ – he understood that requires Revolution, ideally non-violent, but violent if our enemy makes it so.

  10. I find it hard to believe that non-violent resistance will win the day for the Palestinians and end the ongoing colonization of Palestine. Peaceful protesters are being fired upon regularly, and leaders advocating non-violent resistance are being imprisoned. On the other hand, violent resistance seems even less promising and will certainly visit more disasters on this people.

    • In India and in the American South, it took years for non-violent tactics to make any progress. The Birmingham Bus Boycott alone lasted a year. I have questioned whether the Palestinians have the patience required to make nonviolence succeed (and was perhaps justifiably criticized for that question) but (1) it is the best if not the only path to eventual success and (2) it requires patience–and forgiveness. King reminded his supporters not to hate whites, not to allow themselves to be dragged down to that level.

    • Especially since Palestinian non violent protesters have been thrown in Israeli prisons for decades. Use violence killed or thrown into prison, use non violence, killed or thrown into prison. Not much of a choice. In the whole time the U.S. MSM ignores your efforts. You know even those liberal media outlets like Rachel Maddow, the Daily show etc.

      Ever hear Maddow, Olbermann, Ed, Chris Matthew even mention the Goldstone report. Hell no. Silence…just like the liberal Jon Stewart too.

  11. Certainly non-violent means such as communication, education, legal and political action are necessary components of major reforms opposed by governments. Even revolutions succeed only by setting the stage for non-violent reform. But non-violent means are sufficient only where the government is unable to sustain a broad counterinsurgency, as in the British colonies of North America, or not much inclined to fight, as in British India. MLK did not bring about enforcement of the 1872 Civil Rights Act in the 1960s; it was brought about by riots in ghettos across the country, which inspired fear in the selfish and hypocritical majority, who could then sanctimoniously declare for the rights of others. At the time, MLK’s non-violence was celebrated by the mass media to quell violence, and had no effect upon the process of enforcing civil rights, except to show doubters that some African-Americans were not violent. That is a factor only in preventing reactionary suppression of disadvantaged minorities in an affluent democracy. No realist will argue that czarist Russia might have been toppled by Ghandi or MLK, even in its much weakened state.

    • “MLK did not bring about enforcement of the 1872 Civil Rights Act in the 1960s; it was brought about by riots in ghettos across the country, which inspired fear in the selfish and hypocritical majority, who could then sanctimoniously declare for the rights of others.”
      I must disagree with you. Did you live through this time? I did, and the riots inspired only hatred and a call for repression (and claims that African Americans were too primitive and violence-prone to be given full freedom). It was the constant drumming of demands for basic rights, a call for us as a country to live up to our higher potential, that made the difference–and that is neither a quick nor an easy process.

      “No realist will argue that czarist Russia might have been toppled by Ghandi or MLK, even in its much weakened state.”
      An interesting point. Czarist Russia was a medieval, feudal society and as such might not have been susceptible to King’s or Gandhi’s tactics. As you say, open communication is necessary for the majority to hear what the protesters are saying. Thus these tactics might not work in China where the government controls all communications. (Note that Israel has a completely free press where the opinions of the “dovish” among them are heard constantly.)

      • I also lived through this time, and I suppose we have mentioned some distinct effects of the “race riots” upon different sectors among the majority. The nonviolent means and message is always essential, and the argument for it is far more civil, gratifying, and popular among intellectual folks. But sadly, it is regarded with contempt by the really selfish, unless backed by threat of some disadvantage to themselves. That is not an argument for force in general, just a recognition that carrying a big stick enables one to speak more softly. I do not like to make the point but it is necessary.

        • I can’t disagree but there was little direct effect on the white community of the race riots of the 60s. The rioters remained in the black ghettos, and there was enough law enforcement and National Guard presence to ensure that they would stay there. Clearly there was smoke, noise, some threats, but except for the non-black-owned businesses in the ghetto it was indirect. I don’t recall any fear on the part of any whites…and of course there were no riots in the Deep Segregated South, all in the urban north. (Perhaps in Miami too but that isn’t really the “Deep South” to my mind.
          As for the “big stick,” I wouldn’t make that connection–“give us our rights in response to nonviolent civil disobedience, or there will be riots.” Especially since there was nothing in the riots to directly inspire fear in whites.

  12. I am surprised that no one is using this episode to draw attention to the plight of the mental health in US.

    Since Reagan administration funding for the mental health has been cut and pushed to the states. Now with almost every state on verge of bankruptcy you know for sure it is going to get even worst.

    The Arizona episode should be sounding the alarm for all of us. We need to immediately have a public option version of mental health insurance. Or we are all going to live in a dangerous place. Today there are many people just like the Arizona shooter that either themselves or their family can’t afford to help.

  13. Don’t worry. King was by no means pro-Palestinian. You have to go to black nationalists like Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm X to find overt criticism of Zionism and Israel
    in King’s era.

    This is the uncomfortable fact for conventional liberals and is somewhat analgolous to Obama’s having alienated the bulk of the Islamic world with his continuation of Bush war policies and retreat before Netanyahu–which world once regarded him as the great black hope.

  14. My UCC pastor last Sunday read SLC’s/MLK’s “10 Commandments” of non violence. Those interested in joining the civil rights movement were required to sign pledges that they would follow these commandments.

    I have emailed my pastor asking for a cite or for her to send me a copy of them. In the meantime, please post them if anyone has them. I think most of us would find them of value and interest.

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