Monday, November 22, 2010

Is MLK Really As Nonviolent As He Claims?

Martin Luther King is the most famous figure associated with nonviolence, but is he really as strong in his philosophy of nonviolence as he appears? Shouldn’t you practice what you preach?

As we talked about in class awhile ago, King’s house was once bombed while he was out of town; it was an attempt to kill his wife, Coretta, the person he probably cared most about. How did King respond? He had gunmen surround his house to scare off any other people who may try to attack either him or his family. While he didn’t go out and kill anyone or beat anyone up, is that really nonviolent? Just because you don’t physically injure somebody does not mean you didn’t have the intention of your gunmen shooting at people.

In addition, he endorsed the Black Power ideology, which focused on violence for self-defense; we know this because he joined Stokely Carmichael on the Meredith March Against Fear. How can you endorse Black Power and still be nonviolent? Is that even possible? According to King it must be possible. But in everything we have read, activists as well known as Stokely Carmichael, to random people we have never heard of in “Eyes on the Prize” discuss how important the idea of self-defense is to the Black Power Movement. In association with the Black Power Movement, we need to consider the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; members of this party were among the first to denounce the War in Vietnam. In his speech denouncing the war on April 4, 1967, King in essence aligned himself with the Black Panthers. It doesn’t seem possible to align with the Black Panthers and truly be nonviolent.

In this same speech, King remarks that he is denouncing the war on the grounds that it is a racist war. His other reason is that the majority of people drafted to fight in this war were those that were living in poverty, since one of the only ways to get out of the draft was to enroll in college. Enrolling in college was, and still is, expensive; the people able to enroll were those that had money, not the ones living in poverty. So in King’s mind, the war was both racist and discriminated against the poorer classes. He does discuss the violence of the war by saying he couldn’t help eliminate violence in the ghettos of America unless he stopped the violence abroad. However, he doesn’t really say that the war is immoral due to the violence it creates; he just doesn’t want the violence on the home front.

All of these factors lead me to question the reality behind King’s so called nonviolent lifestyle. What do you think? Is he nonviolent? I suppose it depends how you define nonviolence. If nonviolence is just not physically hurting people, or if it is being against every instance of violence you come across.



    You can see and listen to the speech on this website if you would like. I meant to include it with the post. Sorry about that.

  2. You make a very avid point in noting the fact that King does indulge in some questionable behaviors. However, I think it is a matter of self-preservation. A person can be nonviolent, but still want to live. Just as Professor McKinney stated in class, there were those who were nonviolent but they knew that during their march if things got out of hand, "John Doe" would be at the corner waiting for his chance to take action. Just because you know that someone else is willing to fight for you doesn't mean, necessarily,that you are violent yourself. I think that Kind had every intention of indulging in zero violence, but at the same time he wanted to make sure that he stayed alive, or have some type of life insurance so to speak, so that he could continue his work. As far as the War in Vietnam, I think that he was merely trying to point out the fact that America is a very hypocritical nation if it is willing to go to war with someone else for something that is going on in within itself. I don't know if you've ever heard the expression "Sweep around your own front door before you try to sweep around mine." I think King was impressing upon Americans to realize that they were doing the exact opposite of what this phrase conveys.

  3. I think this is an interesting post, but I still believe that MLK Jr. was truly nonviolent. His alignment and endorsement with the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense did not alter his nonviolent philosophy or lifestyle. It served, rather, as a bridge, connecting different parts of the Civil Rights Movement. It was an attempt to have some kind of solidarity within the overall movement. I do agree that having armed men outside of his home does counter his belief of nonviolence, but at a certain point, a person's survival and protective instincts take control. While MLK Jr. was a leader and a figure-head of the nonviolent movement, he was still a man with a family that he wanted to protect, and that does not take away from him being nonviolent.

  4. This is a thought provoking post. I do, however, think that MLK's actions remained loyal to his nonviolent philosophy. Yes, he did have guarded men outside of his house, but after it was bombed and his wife almost killed. I agree with Caroline in that at some point basic instincts take over and you do what you need to do. But if you think about it, having men on patrol outside of his house was the most nonviolent thing he could have done aside from nothing at all. Most men would go after someone who tried to kill their wives, but MLK stayed true to his nonviolent ways.

  5. I think that I could go on either side of my own argument; truly this depends on how you define nonviolence. If you define it as condoning, but not engaging in violence, sure King was nonviolent. If you define it as disallowing violence anywhere in your life, then maybe he wasn't. Even if not totally nonviolent, King is definitely less violent than many other leaders we read about this semester.