Without making an analysis of the bases for Dr. Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence, it is indeed easy for one to be swayed to the two arguments that are against it. King’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, however, clarifies such bases and presents counter-arguments to lines of thought that oppose the strategies and tactics employed by the Civil Rights Movement in which he was one of the key leaders. It was after I read the Letter myself that I discovered how my own tendencies to favor violent methods to further goals that I believe are just are not valid under the conditions confronting the Civil Rights Movement at that time. However, I must also make it clear that if the situation does warrant it, the application of violence could still be justified according to some of the arguments that Dr. King himself points out in the Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Dr. King’s methods have often been simply the described as nonviolent. However, what seems to be less mentioned that his nonviolence does not refer to passivity but instead to activism. This active nonviolence was a response to the oppression that the African Americans, particularly in the Jim Crow South, were suffering. It is a method of struggle. The aim of every struggle is, of course, to achieve victory. Therefore, in order to determine whether the Civil Rights Movement’s application of active nonviolence is correct, it would be necessary to cite the victories it had gained. Apparently, victories were won. Even if there are still racial biases that exist in society, at least, the laws that institutionalized these, such as the Jim Crow types, have been abolished. The nonviolent means of struggle to obtain civil rights for the African Americans is, therefore, correct. However, as I tried to ponder whether I, like the other CRM activists, could actually take the brutal beatings by the state forces without being compelled to respond in kind, I knew that active nonviolence worked then not just because it was moral as Dr. King always stipulated but because it was meant to be given the conditions of the country at that time. As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King often cited Christian principles as the basis for his active nonviolence. In the Letter, he clearly pointed out that “through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle” (King). The philosophy behind this can be based on how Christ won when he meekly submitted himself to his captors and be crucified.
Nonviolence as a method of struggle was effective then because the federal government and the rest of the country outside the segregationist South had liberal attitudes towards the Civil Rights Movement. Any attempt at launching violent attacks against the southern states’ coercive apparatuses would alienate the Civil Rights Movement from the whites of rest of the country and might even compel the federal government to employ its own armed forces and law enforcement bodies to establish order. At the same time, the federal government also had no choice but to be lenient to nonviolent although disruptive forms of mass actions so as not to prompt the African Americans to employ violent methods of struggle. At a time when the US was engaged in a Cold War, it could not afford to see another battlefront emerging in its own yard; it had to concede to demands of the CRM. Such conditions eventually contributed to the success of the CRM and its nonviolent method of struggle. If violent methods would be applied, Dr. King and the CRM would be deemed as unpatriotic or even terroristic by the media and the public composed of the white majority.
However, even as Dr. King argues in favor of nonviolence, it is interesting to note that he also cited many times violent struggles against oppression that were also victorious, such as those in Africa and Asia, and individuals who waged wars to end injustice, such as Abraham Lincoln. This makes us wonder whether under different circumstances, such as in worse and more systemic forms of oppression, Dr. King would still continue to subscribe to nonviolence as an effective method of struggle. If one studies the history of popular struggles in different parts of the globe, there were Christians, as in the case of Latin America and Ireland, that also used religion as the philosophical basis for their use of violence. Apparently, Dr. King’s argument in favor of nonviolence is strong under the concrete social and political conditions that he is confronted with. However, under different situations, this may be weak.
King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1963.