The life and philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a text for learning how to understand and live in a world of conflict and change without creating conflict or be-coming a passive victim of the negative conflict and violence. He was able to create a psychological framework, philosophical understanding and a theological position to es-tablish an effective strategy to respond to the surrounding violence in a way that trans-formed the violence rather than conform to it.
- This Course is based mainly on Professor Bernard LaFayette, Jr.(University of Rhode Island) paper Lessons from the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. prepared for the First Global Nonkilling Leadership Forum, Mu Ryang Sa Buddhist Temple, Honolulu, Hawai‛i, November 1-4, 2007. The Course is part of the Program on Nonkilling Leadership Development at the School of Nonkilling Studies.
He taught that refusal to retaliate to violence was not an act of cowardness, but could be an act of strength or even courage. King insisted that to practice his philoso-phy courage was required. Courage in the face of violence is a form of resistance. He was a non-conformist. The strength that King acquired from taking courageous stands against injustice came as a result of his vision of a “Beloved Community.” He was act-ing in a way to show others his vision of a new kind of community, a new way of life, a new relationship that was possible with one another as people in the global society. For him the “Beloved Community” was a destination that required a pilgrimage, which in-volved change. First, it requires change of ourselves. How we see ourselves influences how we see others. How we see others impacts our behavior towards others. King calls upon us not only to see others in a different light but also to try to see ourselves and the world through the eyes of others (especially our opponents). By seeing the world and ourselves through the eyes of the opponent, we can pinpoint the change we want to make to create that “Beloved Community.”
Nonviolence is not only standing against what is wrong, but also standing for what is right. For King the “Beloved Community” is not a distant geography in the sky, but rather a day to day existence of revolving relationships with loved ones and ones to be loved. Love is the basic ethic that informs the methodology and strategy for achieving the goal. The means cannot be justified by the ends. In order to achieve a “Beloved Community” the process must be consistent with the end. Unjust means cannot be used to achieve a just end. Agape is the love force employed in the nonviolent process.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was recognized as an American philosopher by the Ameri-can Philosophical Association. Most philosophers have an ideal society or utopia. For King the “Beloved Community” was his utopia.
However, his utopia is found in micro-communities as well as the global commu-nity. Interpersonal relations are equally important in King’s view. The King approach denied one’s emotions to take the lead when responding to a conflict. The response has to be based on an understanding of the conditions that surround the conflict or issue. To attack the person or persons involved is not a solution to the problem but rather a temporary halt to a pending onslaught.
In most cases violence or injustice is couched in a condition that victimizes the perpetrators as well as their intended victims. While the behavior of the individual(s) must discontinue, the policies, political and economic structures that support the condi-tions must also be addressed, otherwise no permanent change will occur.
While examining the conditions that host the conflict, violence or injustice, it is es-sential to study the history of those conditions. Most often the conditions are influ-enced by a set of values. These values have to be taken into consideration. For some people values are relative, interchangeable and caught rather than taught. Some people operate on a set of values based on the environment at a given time. Some people have personal values that are different in group settings.
Dr. King focused on systemic change rather than replacing individuals and leaving the conditions in place. In the process of changing the conditions, it was important for King to identify to what extent those who stand by in silence support the system. In many cases those who suffer from the system help to perpetuate the condition by co-operating with it. Therefore, one of the first steps in changing an unjust condition is to persuade the victims to withdraw their participation from the unjust system. It may mean accepting suffering. This type of suffering is voluntary and is for a good cause that leads to change. Non-cooperation requires that the individual take many things into consideration. Among them would be the relationship of individual non-cooperation compared to group non-cooperation. The larger community may not be directly af-fected by the condition, but may support such as by sympathetic strikes.
King’s approach was to raise awareness of the conditions by dramatizing the injus-tices. By dramatizing the injustices he was fully aware that the opposition power struc-ture would react in a way to reinforce the conditions using a greater amount of physical force. This direct action served to bring to the surface the inhuman conditions that support the system, thus creating a power base of sympathy that served to counter-balance the power of the opponent and weighed in on creating a just solution.
This approach was seen as a strategy in addition to taking a personal stand against an unjust condition. When one takes a stand against an unjust condition, it does not re-quire one to have a mean spirit or negative attitude against the person or persons. In fact, it is necessary to move against the injustice or violence with the force of love. One must avoid doing violence to one’s own spirit or the spirit of the opponent. It is not ef-fective to make decisions based on anger and negative emotions.
Our goal in nonviolence reconciliation is to win the opponent over by showing a better side of ourselves as human beings. Our example must be one that should be rep-licated by others. Therefore, we must be at our best by showing our better side.
Leadership is critical in any campaign, especially in a nonviolent campaign. The leadership sets the tone. When attacks are being made against the group, whether verbal or physical, the leader cannot retaliate in kind. In such circumstances the leader must be strong, courageous and resistant by taking the high ground. In the words of a popular freedom song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.”
King as a strategist knew that an important factor in mounting a campaign was to carefully select the focus of the campaign. Problems usually have many components. These components are like spirals that connect to a central base. To focus on one or two spirals would be futile because the others would continue to grow. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the points of connection and identify the problem as a whole with its many facets. However, when selecting a specific issue, one should select a goal that is within range, one that can be reached in a short period of time.
It is important that the main action be local but the problem be identified in a much broader arena. It is necessary to show the relation of the local condition to global condi-tions. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” teaches M.L .King, Jr. It is nec-essary to continue to relate the local issue to a change of perception and a change of behav-ior. Local action is controllable and can be continued and sustained over a period of time.
Escalation of action should be in proportion to the reaction of the opponent. The concept of negotiation/direct action according to King’s teachings is that one must al-ways be willing to negotiate. However, it is not necessary to stop action while talking. In fact it is thought that action helps to keep the talks more sincere. It was King’s view that one must always give his opponent a way to save face and that any outcome that is considered a victory must be a collaborative victory to be celebrated.
King also aimed at a solution that was over-arching and embraced a number of is-sues. An example would be the Selma Movement that addressed voter registration problems and voting practices in a number of states in both the North and the South. The poll tax in Texas, election procedures in Illinois and literacy tests in New York, as well as in a number of other states were eliminated as a result of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Act locally, aim globally.
A critical stage of any movement is when the opponent’s acts of violence have overwhelmed the proponents for change and the spirit is down. The question is how does one maintain the momentum and confidence that the campaign can succeed? Dr. King was faced with many such moments in the course of his movements.
One of the most important lessons King taught us was to never lose faith in the cause. The first step is to keep on pushing even when you are not strong. Never lose faith in yourself and do not be overcome. The inspiration to continue comes from those who have given their lives to the cause and for the cause. The inspiration comes from the writ-ings of those who have faced more difficult struggles in the times of their lives.
Finally there is the music, which is the blood in the life of the movement. As long as we can sing, we will always be free.
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I won’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know to-night that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1968