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We Shall Overcome American Studies Today Online
Peter Ling, Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Nottingham and the author of a forthcoming biography of Martin Luther King
Nonviolence and Self-Defense
Nonviolent direct action and the 1960 watershed
Economic Coercion as an aspect of nonviolent direct action
Nonviolence as a pragmatic position for a minority group
Alternatives to nonviolence
The psychology and ethics of nonviolence
King’s Political Coalition of Conscience
Why did King’s nonviolence achieve no equivalent successes after 1965?

King’s Final Year: Did his Nonviolence Fail?

Martin Luther King with Robert Kennedy and Lyndon JohnsonMartin Luther King is remembered today for his championing of the cause of non-violent direct action as a means of advancing the struggle for Civil Rights, but his views were not shared by all in the movement. This article attempts to set King's views into the context of the struggle, analyses his philosphy and considers what his lasting legacy to Civil Rights has been.The paper was first presented at the ASRC Annual Schools Conference Oct 31st 2001 on the topic of Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement and Black Nationalism.


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“We Shall Overcome” was the anthem of the southern civil rights movement, and it captured its religious idealism. Almost as soon as the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 catapulted him to fame, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a major symbol of, and spokesman for, this aspect of the movement because of his championing of the philosophy and tactics of non-violence. Accordingly, I want to examine the role and practice of non-violence over the course of King’s career, which (as you all know) was tragically cut short by his assassination on 4 April 1968.

Nonviolence and Self-Defense

At the time in 1960, the press sometimes referred to non-violence as “passive resistance,” and the sight of people not striking back when attacked tended to underline that word: “passive.” It was this perception of non-violence that made King’s approach so controversial inside the African American community. Figures such as Malcolm X vilified King for what they regarded as a demeaning denial of the basic human right to self-defence. In contrast to King’s rejection of violence, which won him praise among white liberals and the mainstream media, Malcolm’s advice that “If the Man puts a hand on you, - send him to the cemetery,” had been warmly applauded by appreciative black audiences. The violent resolution of conflict was deeply embedded in the American tradition and although African Americans had developed supplementary tactics of resistance during slavery, they generally shared with other Americans the expectation that a man of courage would fight back and that, by fighting back, you won your opponents’ respect.

This was certainly the view of Robert Williams, leader of a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, who was suspended by national NAACP officials for organizing a paramilitary group to deter white attacks and by advocating armed self-defence. Williams had been in the US Air Force and in a published debate with King in1959, he spoke openly of how America had taught him to fight. We need to acknowledge that there were many such men in African American communities across the nation in 1960 and that they were probably more representative of black attitudes than King was. But we need also to recognize that the argument is essentially a false one. In his exchange with Williams, King had declared that not even Gandhi denied the right to self-defence, and had openly admitted that the kind of principled pacifism that refused any use of force was not going to attract a large following. At the same time, King insisted that if you chose to become involved in a non-violent demonstration, you agreed to control your actions and reactions during that protest. This kind of pragmatic use of non-violence was what Gandhi had called “the non-violence of the weak.”

Nonviolent direct action and the 1960 watershed

I also chose this excerpt because the sit-in wave of 1960 represented a real watershed in terms of the use of non-violence. The Montgomery Bus Boycott drew on the repertoire of non-violence because it was an act of non-cooperation, but like later consumer boycotts that attracted relatively widespread community support, it was essentially a strategic withdrawal. In contrast, the sit-in was an act of engagement: you put yourself in harm’s way.

This helps to explain why many civil rights activists in 1960 disapproved of the term: passive resistance. They preferred to speak of “non-violent direct action,” with the emphasis equally on “direct action” to indicate that the key elements were the decision to act rather than to accept or accommodate, and the insistence that such action should be aimed directly at the instances or sites of oppression: e.g. segregated lunch counters. The rejected alternative here was not just violence, but the older generation’s tactics of lobbying and lawsuits, which had dominated the formal politics of resistance under the leadership of the NAACP. Civil rights groups had used non-violent direct action tactics before 1960, but after the widespread demonstrations of that year non-violent demonstrations could be said to set the tone.

Economic Coercion as an aspect of nonviolent direct action

Of course, what the bus boycotts and sit-in demonstrations had in common was a calculated use of economic pressure. Since two-thirds of bus riders in Montgomery were African American, the bus company suffered enormous losses during the Boycott and became more eager to settle the dispute than were the city’s white politicians. Similarly, the sit-ins were often accompanied by a formal boycott of the downtown stores that refused to desegregate their lunch counters, including national boycotts in the case of department store chains such as Woolworth’s, and by a sometimes much larger decline in general business as shoppers avoided publicized “trouble-spots.” Such economic pressure was not a function of non-violence as a philosophy, however, and it is worth pointing out that white segregationists used economic intimidation as their principal means of disciplining anyone, black or white, who questioned the racial status quo. Nevertheless, King, like Gandhi before him, was very aware of the potential of economic pressure tactics throughout his career.

Nonviolence as a pragmatic position for a minority group

The increasingly violent and excessive tactics of King’s white opponents in Montgomery had made him into a public champion of non-violence. In February 1956, a bomb had exploded at the King home, nearly killing his wife, Coretta, and baby daughter, Yolanda, yet King had calmed an angry mob of his followers, urging them to put away their guns. On one level, his non-violence was a tactical and pragmatic choice, which rested on the belief that the facts of demography and history made violence by African Americans (not much more than 10% of the US population in 1960) a very high-risk option, given the repeated examples of the white population responding to isolated instances, or even just the threat, of black violence, with extraordinary brutality.

In later protest campaigns, King and his SCLC lieutenants struggled to contain African American anger in part by stressing the firepower literally ranged against them. Thus, Andrew Young writes of how after the “Bloody Sunday” attack in Selma in March 1965, he talked to men who wanted to go outside and shoot it out with Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies. You had to be specific, he explains, about what guns you had, and what guns they had, and how yours would hold up against high-velocity, repeat-action rifles. Similarly, earlier in the same campaign, King and James Bevel are said to have restrained local men who wanted to go to the aid of a black woman who was being beaten by Clark while being held to the ground by his men. If we intervene, Bevel warned, they’ll call us a mob and that’s all the excuse they need to kill us.

Alternatives to nonviolence Of course, others disagreed. King reportedly laughed when SCLC’s executive director Wyatt Walker told him of a rumoured encounter on a bus in Petersburg, Virginia. The story went that a white driver was complaining that black passengers were giving him a hard time when one of the stars of the local black college football team strolled over and lifted the white man off his feet with one hand. “Two things you need to know,” he allegedly said, “one, I can break your neck, and two, I ain’t one of Dr. King’s non-violent niggers!”

In the summer of 1963, Malcolm X repeatedly expressed the view that what had forced the Kennedy administration to intervene in the Birmingham confrontations was not King’s non-violent demonstrations, but the inter-racial violence that erupted in May. It was only when black men started “busting crackers’ heads,” Malcolm alleged, that the Kennedy administration suddenly found that it had the authority to act. This was consistent with Malcolm’s larger view not only that African Americans could deter white attacks by uniting and organizing in a militant fashion, but that there was a larger world community to which African Americans could turn. With strong Garveyite roots, Malcolm, in his final persona of Malik al-Shabazz, turned increasingly to this vision of a global, anti-colonial alliance.

Similarly, Robert Williams strongly argued that the realities of Cold War politics made it unthinkable that the federal government would stand aside and allow African Americans to be massacred, if the self-defence efforts of the latter provoked whites into a wholesale race war. This was a continuation of a well-established argument since the 1930s that had previously prompted civil rights groups to use the leverage of international public opinion to induce federal actions and concessions. Summed up in the1968 cry: “The whole world is watching”, it became a key axiom of protesters in the television era.

The psychology and ethics of nonviolence Perhaps the most contentious aspect of non-violence was its rationale and supposed effects in psychological terms. The motto of King’s SCLC was “To Redeem the Soul of America,” and this reflected not only the fact that it was primarily an organization of black churches, but also its commitment to orthodox Gandhian beliefs that non-violence could transform the oppressor. At times, King’s rhetorical defence of non-violence slipped into an interesting blend of a classic evangelical Christian scenario of renouncing one’s sins and a more recently developed psychoanalytical outlook that implied that confronting and admitting the wrongs of one’s past was a vital stage in the recovery process.

More persuasive in a secular sense was the claim that non-violent direct action intruded upon the process of reification, whereby it becomes easier to act unethically towards someone by blanking out their humanity and making them into something else. Essential to racism, reification not only facilitated oppression, it also psychologically damaged the oppressed person, who became prone to believing the negative stereotyping that accompanied racism. Defenders of non-violence argued that their technique simultaneously enabled them to affirm their moral dignity as human beings and forced their antagonists to acknowledge their humanity. Sit-in demonstrators, such as Franklin McCain in Greensboro, spoke of how they felt “cleansed” and empowered by the stand they took, and relished the shock they detected in white police officers, who were unsure how to respond.

As public encounters, non-violent demonstrations actually involve three separate groups of people: 1) the demonstrators, 2) the other actors such as store staff or police who are trying to end the demonstration, and 3) the usually much larger group of bystanders or spectators, especially when this includes those who “see” the encounter on television or in newspapers. This third group was especially important in the politics of non-violence since it was hoped that the spectacle of one-sided violence would sway their loyalties. As disengaged spectators, they might be psychologically more uncomfortable with the action taken against the demonstrators.

King’s Political Coalition of Conscience

The classic phase of King’s career - 1963-1965 - tends to be discussed in terms of the March on Washington speech, and the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, which mobilized a bipartisan political coalition in favour of federal legislation. King’s ability to induce segregationists to attack civil rights protesters on camera is usually deemed to be central to this success, especially when his lack of success in Albany in 1961-62 is contrasted with his subsequent campaign in Birmingham the following year. Extremely wary about the political costs of introducing a civil rights bill, President Kennedy was reportedly “sickened” by the sight of Bull Connor’s use of dogs and water cannon against young demonstrators in Birmingham. Worried too by the international reaction to such images, Kennedy eventually introduced a civil rights bill in the summer of 1963. One important factor in Lyndon Johnson’s eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was Midwestern Republican support in Congress, much of it mobilized via church groups appalled by what they had seen on television.

The same process of recruiting the guilty bystander was even more at work in the Selma campaign. Not just the televised violence of the March 7 “Bloody Sunday” attack on demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but earlier incidents involving the explosive Sheriff Clark and the murder of white clergyman James Reeb and white housewife Viola Liuzzo, ensured that President Johnson could press through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on a national wave of public sympathy. When Johnson closed his address to both houses of Congress on March 15, he deliberately aligned himself with the movement through his final words: “And we shall overcome.” Watching the President on television, King is reported to have wept.

Why did King’s nonviolence achieve no equivalent successes after 1965?

By the summer of 1965, it was widely acknowledged that King’s use of non-violence had secured important political gains, but at the same time non-violence seemed to work only under certain conditions and the gains it obtained seemed very partial and incomplete.

a. Choosing one’s opponent

Targeting an opponent who would discredit his own position through brutality seemed one key condition. Some newspaper commentators had been hostile and cynical towards non-violence since 1961 because they saw it as disingenuous. The New York Times had complained in the summer of that year that the continuing Freedom Rides were primarily publicity stunts that tried to provoke violence. When King announced that he would target the Northern metropolis of Chicago in1966, the media were already alert to the idea that he was largely engaged in public relations manoeuvres. They therefore applauded Chicago Mayor Daley’s astute counter-moves that effectively undermined King’s initial efforts to expose the evils of ghetto poverty in the city.

b. Choosing and limiting one’s objectives

Another key factor was finding a symbolic objective, one where immediate concessions might be forthcoming but which would simultaneously highlight, and engage with, the larger issue. In the early months of 1966, there were too many issues - education, housing, employment, social services - for the Chicago campaign to generate a clear message. Compounding this weakness, Mayor Daley skilfully avoided a direct confrontation by stressing that he too wanted improvements and was already at work. He also used patronage jobs to tighten his hold on black constituents and undermine King. When King’s campaign narrowed to concentrate on housing discrimination and staged marches into all-white residential neighbourhoods in August, it succeeded in creating a political crisis along the lines of Birmingham and Selma, but it did not generate the same national coalition of conscience.

c. Attracting external support.

Watching the fury of white residents against the open housing marchers did not induce a majority of Americans to side with King’s demands. Particularly after Mayor Daley stepped up the level of police protection given the demonstrators, public sympathy went not just to the protesters but to the police, caught between the two sides. Moreover, whereas earlier demands for the desegregation of public accommodations or the protection of the equal right to vote had seemed modest, legitimate, and unthreatening to many non-southern whites, the new demands had an economic dimension that many whites found threatening, wherever they lived. Racism was built into the housing market to such an extent that the arrival of black residents was widely perceived as economically and socially destructive. Property values would fall, it was assumed, and crime and delinquency would increase.

d. Avoiding violence that casts doubt on the campaign’s legitimacy.

The climax of the Chicago campaign in August 1966 suggested that King’s non-violence had shifted from the cultivation of external sympathy, which was arguably the key in Selma, to the creating of social crisis, which was an important feature of the Birmingham campaign. This analogy allows us to review Malcolm X’s claim that it was the black-on-white retaliatory violence that forced a resolution of the crisis in 1963. Certainly, escalating social disorder alarmed both Mayor Daley’s political machine and the Birmingham city fathers and readied them for negotiations with civil rights leaders. However, whereas the non-violence of King’s 1963 campaign gave some legitimacy to the eruption of black anger in Birmingham, the July Chicago ghetto disturbances tarnished King’s efforts in 1966. King’s claim in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that sometimes it was necessary to create a crisis in order to generate the momentum for action was called into question in his later campaigns as the mass perception ceased to be that the underlying cause of the crisis was white brutality (symbolized by Bull Connor or Jim Clark), and reverted to the, always present, suspicion that the crisis was caused by African American demands.

e. Maintaining discipline and unity through common goals.

By 1966, King’s cultivation of external sympathy had become a key element behind the larger antipathy that his non-violent stance engendered in black militants. Northern-based black activists, outside of the NAACP and National Urban League, had always doubted King’s faith in white liberals, and leading figures among the battle-hardened, southern movement veterans had experienced too much white brutality and too little liberal commitment by 1966 to retain their faith in non-violence. They either experienced a kind of “burn-out” like Robert Moses of SNCC or like Moses’ colleagues, Stokely Carmichael and James Forman, they declared non-violence to be just one part of a repertoire of protest that shook concessions from the establishment by creating a crisis. This was not a new position by any means but it was more widely publicized in 1966, and in the generally alarmist reaction to Carmichael’s calls for “Black Power” and the emergence of such paramilitary groups as the Black Panther Party in California, rejecting non-violence was presented by the media as tantamount to embracing violent tactics. The big press “story” then became the splits: between King and Carmichael, between integration and separatism, between non-violence and armed struggle in the Che Guevara style.

What King sensed about “Black Power” was its huge strategic miscalculation. It relied upon a level of African American solidarity that had never existed, yet fuelled white solidarity in an acutely damaging way. Conservative politicians like Governor Ronald Reagan of California prospered, while progressive white figures such as Mayors Kavanagh of Detroit and Lindsay of New York saw their careers destroyed by the backlash against a black militancy that produced massive disturbances in Detroit and a huge disruption of New York schools in 1967.

g. Exploiting divisions and appealing beyond one’s opponent’s jurisdiction.

Ever since the abolitionist fight against slavery, African Americans had tried to profit from the divisions within the white majority. The guarantees and proscriptions added to the federal Constitution after the Civil War strengthened a trend for black Americans to appeal to the federal government either through the courts or increasingly after World War II via the Presidency, an office secured via a voting system that gave the black vote leverage in key electoral college states like California or other non-southern heavily populated states. Between 1963 and 1965, King had appealed to a national coalition to mobilize the federal government against what were perceived to be anachronistic, Southern injustices. Between 1966 and 1968, on the other hand, he spoke out against national and international evils that were condoned and perpetrated by the federal government. After nearly a year of vacillation, he spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War in the spring of 1967, branding his own country as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and calling on America to get on the right side of the coming revolution of values. However, his denunciation of the war was too prescient to secure a sympathetic reception and he was lambasted as a Communist fellow traveller, a venal publicity seeker, or simply, a fool.

King’s Final Year: Did his Nonviolence Fail? Subsequent events largely support King’s analysis of the dire consequences of the Vietnam War, but in the year that elapsed from his great Riverside speech against the war and his assassination in Memphis, he did not develop an effective non-violent strategy either to end the war or to transform America’s political agenda from militarism to a genuine war on poverty. In terms of direct action, King did not go on a Gandhi-style hunger strike and flirted with only a few ideas. He talked about taking a highly trained group of volunteers to Vietnam, where they would encamp on bridges and at other strategic sites to provide “human shields” to stop the bombing. His supposedly Communist white advisor, Stanley Levison told him not to be ridiculous. He indicated his support for conscientious objectors and visited other protesters arrested for demonstrations at military installations. He led marches, gave speeches, signed petitions, and lobbied, but although the rallies were growing larger, King did not follow his colleague Jim Bevel’s advice to attack the US war machine non-violently. The largest anti-war demonstrations occurred after his death.

The Poor People’s Campaign, which King was planning at the time of his death, shows that he was striving to demonstrate that non-violence could address the key issues of social and economic injustice. Here, too, his emphasis shifted between a coercive non-violence that created widespread disruption through mass civil disobedience and a persuasive non-violence that generated a coalition of conscience through publicizing undeniable injustice. Thus, the idea of bringing the poor to Washington was sometimes presented in terms of protests that would stop the federal government from functioning, and at others was seen as bringing the forgotten Americans - the poor - before Congress, which would act once it saw firsthand the malnutrition, dilapidated housing, and lack of income or employment, and heard about the level of exploitation.

King himself spoke of the Poor People’s Campaign as “going for broke,” a phrase that highlighted his desperation. The looting and violence that disrupted his march in support of striking black workers in Memphis on March 28 gravely damaged his reputation and probably ensured that he would have backed further away from radical coercive non-violence in the upcoming Washington campaign. King knew how thin was the tightrope he walked in 1968. If his protest degenerated into violence, it would provide a justification for reactionary measures. If it failed to generate a crisis that extracted concessions, however, it would strengthen the appeal of his black separatist rivals.

Since American politics in 1968 went through a crisis from which conservative forces and a revitalized Republican Party ultimately emerged victorious, it is tempting to see King as a failure rescued by martyrdom. That would be too hasty a judgment, even though it might be the kind of harsh verdict that King would have made of himself. To emphasize only the conservative forces in American life at this time would be to ignore how close Congress came to passing a guaranteed income plan, how the movement’s economic and legal pressures have generated the conditions for the subsequent emergence of an expanded African American middle class, and how schemes to secure social stability through expanded welfare and education programs endured into the Reagan years. Certainly, the absence of racial justice in the United States today cannot be taken as a sign of the failure of non-violent direct action. Evil prospers, King once wrote, when good men do nothing.



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