Non-Violence and the American Conscience

Updated: Feb 2

Yesterday was January 18, 2021, a day known in the United States as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This, the third Monday in January, is meant to celebrate the birthday of MLK (his actual birthday is January 10th) and for Americans to look back on his many teachings about the need for racial equality. But we Americans, have been known to cherry pick our history somewhat with what we celebrate.


If you asked any American on the street who Martin Luther King Jr. was they would probably be able to give you the basic facts. He was a Civil Rights leader in the 1950s and 60s and is most famous for his support of non-violent protest tactics and his "I Have A Dream" speech. If you are not familiar, below are two videos of his "I Have A Dream" speech. One is the full speech, about 18 minutes in length, the other a shortened 7 minute version that has also be colorized from the original black and white recording.

Here is the full "I Have a Dream" speech from August 28, 1963 from the Library of Congress

Here is a shorter edited down version of the speech that has also been colorized and converted into high definition.

Unfortunately, 58 years later, Dr. King's dream has not been realized yet. Giant steps forward have been made, but the Black Lives Matter protests all across the country the last few years and the counter protests that have happened in their wake are proof that his dream is not yet realized. But still today, Dr. King's message rings from the lips of protestors fighting for racial equality and his visage appearing on shirts and signs attempting to inspire people to come together for the common goal of peace. But some have tried to weaponize Dr. King's legacy in an attempt to shame protestors into stopping.


The main idea that many know about Dr. King was his practice of non-violent protests. Some today seem to have cherry picked this one part of his life's work and have weaponized it to use it against those still protesting for racial equality. A key example of this can be seen in 2016 when in Atlanta before a demonstration protesting the deaths of unarmed black men by police, then-Mayor Kasim Reed said, "Dr. King would never take a freeway." [Source] Anyone who believes this, I implore you to look into the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1965. [Source 1] [Source 2]


Below is video footage from around the time of the Selma to Montgomery Marches of 1965. It includes the shocking images of the "Bloody Sunday" event of March 7, 1965. While Dr. King was not present for what occurred, former Georgia State Representative John Lewis was. While the protest was non-violent, you can see that reaction of the state was anything but.


Dr. King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963 and the events above happened in 1965. Somehow after all of the work he had done and the countless people whose minds may have been swayed by his words and peaceful actions, the state still used its best tool to fight back against those pushing for racial equality. Why were these non-violent protests not working?

Kwame Ture, also known as Stokely Carmichael, was another prominent, although lesser known, political organizer during the Civil Rights era. He was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was also a member of the Black Panther Party. Above is a clip of Ture discussing the idea that the United States lacks a conscience, thus non-violence cannot work. While the average American citizen may be able to see a non-violent protest and feel empathy for those suffering and understand the protest, often times the state acts in its own self interest rather than for the wants and needs of its people.


And what happens when you have a large group of angry, sad, desperate and enraged citizens that have tried in every way they can to get their point across but remain unheard? You get an angry mob with riotous intentions. In the words of Dr. King, "a riot is the language of the unheard." [Source]

Non-violence as a tactic in the quest for equality is a just and honest way to get to the end goal. However, even Dr. King himself knows that it cant always work. In the clip above from Mike Wallace's September 27, 1966 60 minutes interview with MLK, Dr. King elaborates on both the importance of non-violence and how/why it is not the only method of protest that was being used at the time. Earlier in his career as a preacher King even owned "an arsenal" of guns to protect himself and his family and also applied for a concealed weapons permit. [Source] To explain this point further, the video below is a clip of Kwame Ture speaking later in life about the problem with using non-violence as a philosophy vs. using it as a tactic.

We can all agree that a non-violent protest that leads to a civil discussion is what we would all like to see happen every time there is an issue in our world. But unfortunately, that is almost never the case. Sometimes logic, reason and facts cannot dissuade a group from protesting and sometimes turning into a violent mob and other times the state cant help itself from using chemical weapons that have been banned for the use in a war against its own peacefully protesting citizens. [Source]


Just 22 days before his eventual murder, Dr. King gave a speech where he said:

I'll be the first to say that we will never have a truly integrated society, a truly colorless society until men and women are obedient to the unenforceable. But after saying that, let me point out the other side. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can't make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also. [Source]

The practice of non-violence requires all the players in question to follow the same rules and for the rules to recognize all the players as equal. But there was one major flaw at this time, the United States did not see its citizens as equal. But unfortunately for not just Dr. King, but for the entire United States, while laws can attempt to regulate behavior, it does not always work and Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.



But it is not all doom and gloom! In the years since Dr. King's death, the United States has made many leaps forward in the case of not just African Americans, but for minority groups in general. While we by no means live in a perfect and harmonious world in 2021 and sometimes it feels like we have taken many steps backward, forward progression gets made each and everyday.


But this forward motion does not happen on its own. It relies most heavily on white Americans to be better than those who came before us. Almost every system in our country has been set up to give white folk an advantage and any person of color a disadvantage.


The best thing I can leave you all with is yet another YoutTube find of historical importance. Below is an interview James Baldwin did on the Dick Cavett Show where James and Dick have a very frank and honest discussion about the race issues going on in the United States at the time. It is quite interesting to see how all the counter points Dick Cavett brings up are almost the exact same points many progressive whites who question "radical" black activists ask today. But the most important take away from this video is probably when James Baldwin begins to refer to African American's integration into main stream American culture being equal to African Americans being accomplices to their own murder Dick Cavett replies "That's impressive, I don't understand it...that last sentence."


Dick Cavett had immense power culturally and the fact that he used his power to uplift the voice of someone like James Baldwin is exactly what needs to continue to happen. And not only did he provide a platform for Baldwin to speak, but he left him speak freely and to fully explain his ideas no matter how complex so that they would both be able to see eye to eye at the end of the conversation. What I would give for modern television interviews to be done like this.

James Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show - May 16, 1969

Sources

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