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How a Great Man Put Down His Guns: Martin Luther King's Path to Nonviolence

It took years of political evolution for King to understand nonviolence not merely as a moral force, but as an effective strategy for leveraging political change.

This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

Abernathy and MLK march. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and their wives, Coretta and Juanita, lead a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, with the Abernathy children on the front line. Photo by Wikimedia Commons / Abernathy Family Photos.

Few are aware that Martin Luther King, Jr. once applied for a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

In his 2011 book Gunfight, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler notes that, after King's house was bombed in 1956, the clergyman applied in Alabama for a concealed carry permit. Local police, loathe to grant such permits to African-Americans, deemed him "unsuitable" and denied his application. Consequently, King would end up leaving the firearms at home.

In creating an engineered conflict that could capture the national spotlight, King took huge risks.

The lesson from this incident is not, as some NRA members have tried to suggest in recent years, that King should be remembered as a gun-toting Republican. (Among many other problems, this portrayal neglects to acknowledge how Republicans used conservative anger about Civil Rights advances to win over the Dixiecrat South to their side of the aisle). Rather, the fact that King would request license to wear a gun in 1956, just as he was being catapulted onto the national stage, illustrates the profundity of the transformation that he underwent over the course of his public career.

While this transformation involved a conversion to moral nonviolence and personal pacifism, that is not the whole of the story. More importantly, for those who are interested in how nonviolence can serve as a useful strategy for leveraging social change, King's evolution also involved a hesitant but ultimately forceful embrace of direct action—broad-scale, confrontational and unarmed. That stance had lasting consequences in the struggle for freedom in America.

A personal conversion

The 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the campaign that first established King's national reputation, was not planned in advance as a Gandhian-style campaign of nonviolent resistance. At the time, King would not have had a clear sense of the strategic principles behind such a campaign. Rather, the bus boycott came together quickly in the wake of Rosa Park's arrest in late 1955, taking inspiration from a similar action in Baton Rouge in 1953. (Interestingly, the Montgomery drive was initially quite moderate in its demands, calling only for modest changes to the seating plans on segregated buses.)

King, a newcomer to Montgomery, was unexpectedly thrust into the leadership of the movement, chosen in part because he was not identified with any of the established factions among the city's prominent blacks. He was reluctant about his new role and its burdens. Soon he was receiving phone calls on which unidentified voices warned, "Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you. Before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery." After such threats resulted in the bombing of King's home in February 1956, armed watchmen guarded against further assassination attempts.

It is only when the tenets of unarmed direct action are strategically employed that nonviolence gains its fullest power.

This response reflected King's still-tentative embrace of the theory and practice of nonviolence. In his talks before mass meetings, King preached the Christian injunction to "love thy enemy." Having read Thoreau in college, he described the bus boycott as an "act of massive noncooperation" and regularly called for "passive resistance." But King did not use the term "nonviolence," and he admitted that he knew little about Gandhi or the Indian independence leader's campaigns. As King biographer Taylor Branch notes, out-of-state visitors who were knowledgeable about the principles of unarmed direct action—such as Rev. Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Bayard Rustin of the War Resisters League—reported that King and other Montgomery activists were "at once gifted and unsophisticated in nonviolence."

Both Rustin and Smiley took notice of the firearms around the King household and argued for their removal. In a famous incident described by historian David Garrow, Rustin was visiting King's parsonage with reporter Bill Worthy when the journalist almost sat on a pistol. "Watch out, Bill, there's a gun on that chair," the startled Rustin warned. He and King stayed up late that night arguing about whether armed self-defense in the home could end up damaging the movement.

While today's NRA members might prefer to forget, it was not long before King had come around to the position advocated by groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Smiley would make visits to Montgomery throughout King's remaining four years there, and the civil rights leader's politics would be shaped by many more late-night conversations.

In 1959, at the invitation of the Gandhi National Memorial Fund, King made a pilgrimage to India to study the principles of satyagraha, and he was moved by the experience. Ultimately, he never embraced the complete pacifism of A. J. Muste; later, in the Black Power years, King made a distinction between people using guns to defend themselves in the home and the question of "whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized protest." But, for himself, King claimed nonviolence as a "way of life," and he maintained his resolve under conditions that would make many others falter.

In September 1962, when King was addressing a convention, a 200-pound white man, the 24-year-old American Nazi Party member Roy James, jumped onto the stage and struck the clergyman in the face. King responded with a level of courage that made a lifelong impression on many of those in the audience. One of them, storied educator and activist Septima Clark, described how King dropped his hands "like a newborn baby" and spoke calmly to his attacker. King made no effort to protect himself even as he was knocked backwards by further blows. Later, after his aides had pulled the assailant away, he talked to the young man behind the stage and insisted that he would not press charges.

Nonviolence as a political weapon

Believers in pacifism often contend that such principled nonviolence represents the high point in a person's moral evolution. They argue that those who merely use unarmed protest tactically—not because they accept it as an ethical imperative, but because they have decided it is the most effective way to propel a given campaign for social change—practice a lesser form of nonviolence. Gandhi advanced this position when he claimed that those who forgo violence for strategic reasons, rather than ethical ones, employ the "nonviolence of the weak." King echoed the argument when he wrote that "nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient in the moment," but rather is something "men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim."

Ultimately, King was a follower, not a leader, in cultivating a new tradition of strategic nonviolent action in the United States.

Despite such admonitions, the opposite case can be made: Moral nonviolence without strategic vision rings hollow. And, in holding up King as an icon of individual pacifism, we fail to see his true genius.

It is possible for someone to make a commitment to nonviolence as a point of personal principle without ever taking part in the kind of action that would make their convictions a matter of public consequence. Indeed, this is common, since most people prefer the comforts of private life to the tension of political conflict.

Pacifists who do put their beliefs to the test might undertake civil disobedience individually—performing acts of moral witness that pose no real threat to perpetrators of injustice. It is only when the tenets of unarmed direct action are strategically employed, made into effective weapons of political persuasion through campaigns of widespread disruption and collective sacrifice, that nonviolence gains its fullest power.

Martin Luther King did embrace strategic nonviolence in its most robust and radical form—and this produced the historic confrontations at Birmingham and Selma. But it is important to remember that these came years after his initial baptism into political life in Montgomery, and that they might easily not have happened at all.

The road to Birmingham

Following the successful bus boycott, King sought out ways to spread the Montgomery model throughout the South. He knew that there existed strategists who had immersed themselves in the theory and practice of broad-scale confrontation, but he acknowledged that this organizing tradition had yet to take root in the civil rights movement.

In early 1957, King met James Lawson, a savvy student of unarmed resistance who had spent several years in India. As Branch relates, King pleaded with the young graduate student to quit his studies: "We need you now," King said. "We don't have any Negro leadership in the South that understands nonviolence."

Despite this recognition, the idea of waging broadly participatory campaigns of direct action fell far outside of King's organizational frame of reference, and in many ways he remained a reluctant convert to mass action. Founded in 1957, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, was conceived as a coalition of ministers. It thought of itself, in the words of one historian, as the "political arm of the black church." However, as Ella Baker biographer Barbara Ransby writes, that institution was none too bold on civil rights, and "the majority of black ministers in the 1950s still opted for a safer, less confrontational political path." Even King and his more motivated cohort "defined their political goals squarely within the respectable American mainstream and were cautious about any leftist associations."

Frustrated that SCLC's program in the first years involved more "flowery speeches" than civil disobedience, the militant Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham warned that, if the organization did not become more aggressive, its leaders would "be hard put in the not too distant future to justify our existence."

The next major breakthroughs in civil rights activism would come not from the SCLC's hesitant ministers, but through the student lunch counter sit-ins that swept through the South starting in Spring of 1960, and then through the 1961 Freedom Rides. In each case, when young activists implored King to join them, the elder clergyman—himself just in his early 30s—held back. When King told the students that he was with them in spirit, they pointedly shot back, "Where's your body?"

According to John Lewis, then a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, King replied with irritation, making reference to the site of Jesus' crucifixion: "I think I should choose the time and place of my Golgatha," he said.

When King's SCLC did get directly involved in a major campaign of strategic nonviolence, the organization was drawn into an effort that was already underway—one in Albany, Ga., starting in late 1961. Even then, the SCLC did not fully commit until after King and close colleague Ralph Abernathy were swept up in an unplanned arrest. Unfortunately, the effort in Albany was beset by rivalries between different civil rights groups, and it ended in failure. As Garrow notes, The New York Times ended up praising "the remarkable restraint of Albany's segregationists and the deft handling by the police of racial protests," while another national publication remarked that "not a single racial barrier fell."

Nevertheless, the sense of potential he experienced in Albany, combined with the inspiration of the Freedom Rides and student sit-ins, convinced King that the time had come for a campaign of mass action that, in the words of Andrew Young, could be "anticipated, planned and coordinated from beginning to end" using the principles of nonviolent conflict. King had chosen his time and place: Birmingham, 1963.

Big enough to fail, big enough to win

King's political genius was in putting the institutional weight of a major national civil rights organization behind an ambitious, escalating deployment of civil resistance tactics. In the case of Birmingham, this meant taking many of the approaches that had been tried before—the economic pressure leveled against merchants during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the dramatic sit-ins of Nashville, the fill-the-jails arrest strategy of Albany—and combining them in a multistage assault that sociologist and civil rights historian Aldon Morris would dub "a planned exercise in mass disruption."

Given the demonstrated power of mass disruption to shift the political discussion around an issue, why don't more organizations pursue such strategies?

In creating an engineered conflict that could capture the national spotlight, King took huge risks. It would have been far easier for an organization of the size and background of the SCLC to turn toward more mainstream lobbying and legal action—much as the NAACP had done. Instead, by following SNCC's student activists in embracing nonviolent confrontation, SCLC organizers and their local allies created a dramatic clash with segregationists that put the normally hidden injustices of racism on stark public display.

As historian Michael Kazin argues, the famous scenes from Birmingham of police dogs snapping at unarmed demonstrators and water canons being opened on young marchers "convinced a plurality of whites, for the first time, to support the cause of black freedom."

Likewise, King would later write that, in watching marchers defy Bull Connor's menacing police troops, he "felt there, for the first time, the pride and power of nonviolence."

Ultimately, King was a follower, not a leader, in cultivating a new tradition of strategic nonviolent action in the United States. Yet acknowledging this should not diminish his significance. Because when he did commit himself to spearheading the type of broad-based nonviolent protest he had been talking about for years, it resulted in campaigns that profoundly altered the public sense of what measures were needed to uphold civil rights in the United States. The Birmingham model would prove widely influential. Victory in that city sent ripples throughout the country: In the two and a half months after the Birmingham campaign announced a settlement with store owners that commenced desegregation, more than 750 civil rights protests took place in 186 American cities, leading to almost 15,000 arrests.

Given the demonstrated power of mass disruption to shift the political discussion around an issue, why don't more organizations pursue such strategies? Why aren't more groups using militant nonviolence to confront pressing challenges such as economic inequality and global climate change?

There is a certain paradox at work here, one that should enhance our appreciation of King's courage. As veteran labor strategist Stephen Lerner argued in 2011, major organizations have just enough at stake—relationships with mainstream politicians, financial obligations to members, collective bargaining contracts—to make them fear the lawsuits and political backlash that come with sustained civil disobedience.

Martin Luther King at World House Speech.MLK’s "Racism and the World House": More Relevant than Ever

What Lerner says of unions applies equally to large environmental organizations, human rights groups, and other nonprofits: they "are just big enough—and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure—to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed" for bold campaigns of nonviolent conflict to be successful. As a consequence, explosive direct actions—from the Nashville sit-ins to Occupy to the revolution in Egypt—are often led by scrappy, underfunded upstarts. Such ad hoc groups can risk daring campaigns because they have nothing to lose, but they commonly lack the resources to escalate or to sustain multiple waves of protest over a period of years, a rare and powerful ability that established institutions can provide.

To not merely adopt pacifism as a personal philosophy, but rather to stake your career and your organization's future on a belief in the power of nonviolence as a political force, requires tremendous determination. It took years of deliberation and delay for Martin Luther King to take such a step. But when he finally did, the result was decisive: King went from being someone who had been repeatedly swept up in the saga of civil rights—a reluctant protagonist in the battle against American apartheid—to being a shaper of history.


Mark Engler100.jpgMark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, an editorial board member at Dissent, and a contributing editor at YES! Magazine. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles. They are writing a book about the evolution of political nonviolence. They can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com.

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