Non-Violence and the American Conscience

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

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.