Dismissing the use of violence as "both impractical and immoral," Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed nonviolent resistance as “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
First introduced to the concept when he read Henry David Thoreau's Essay on Civil Disobedience as a freshman at Morehouse College, King was fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system. While studying at Crozer Theological Seminary, he continued to intellectually explore the philosophy of nonviolence but had doubts about its potential as an instrument for social change.
In 1950 King traveled to Philadelphia to hear a talk given by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. Dr. Johnson had just returned from India and spoke of the life and teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. King was inspired by what he heard, and after reading several books on Gandhi's life and works, his skepticism concerning the power of love and nonviolence diminished.
It was the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956, however, that would demonstrate to King the power of nonviolent resistance as a tactical weapon against racial discrimination. With guidance from black pacifist Bayard Rustin, King personally embraced Gandhian principles and chose not to use armed bodyguards despite threats on his life. King recalled, “Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many issues I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.”
The experience in Montgomery enabled King to merge the ideas of Gandhi with Christian theo logy. He recalled, “. . . my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. This principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the sprit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.” (King would later travel to India to deepen his understanding of Gandhian principles.)
In a February 1957 article in Christian Century, King summarized the basis of nonviolent direct action in the struggle for civil rights:
1) This is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence. His method is passive or nonaggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent. But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is nonaggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.
2) Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.
3) This method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. As I like to say to the people in Montgomery, Alabama: "The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for 50,000 Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may happen to be unjust."
4) Nonviolent resistance avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can be done only by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.
Clayborne Carson, Susan Carson, Adrienne Clay, Virginia Shadron, Kieran Tay lor, eds., The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume IV: Birth of a New Age, December 1955–December 1956 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)
Clayborne Carson, ed., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998)
Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1958)
Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967)