Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King addressed the use of violence for self-defense in two speeches. One in 1959 and the other in 1962. In these speeches, he detailed how merely passing legislation does not translate into freedom for masses of people. Brown vs. Board of Education passed in 1954, yet few schools integrated. Many civil rights campaigns have led to limited integration in a few locales. An extended campaign of non-violent direct action undertaken by the masses is needed to ensure full integration and citizenship rights.
There were three philosophical schools of thought on violence. The first was the King/ Gandhi school of non-violent direct action. This method was seen as the most moral and is opposed to violence, even in self-defense. Because non-violent direct action took so much discipline and spiritual strength, it was difficult for people to join in the efforts. The second school allows for self-defense. As Gandhi said, self-defense is moral and acceptable for those who could not master non-violent direct action. The last school is the use of violence for advancement, warfare. King saw warfare as immoral.
King feared that Black people initially using violence in self-defense would devolve into warfare and vengeance-seeking. Neutralizing a small ban of rebellious blacks would be far easier the countering masses of non-violent protesters. Violence will end in the slaughter of people on both sides and the continued degradation and isolation of Blacks.
Only non-violent direct action can turn opponents’ hearts on civil rights and build the foundation of a new integrated society, as seen in India. It has also worked in Monroe, North Carolina, where authorities jailed a Black doctor. A non-violent protest freed him. The strategy can work if the masses of black people commit to resisting unjust laws.
In the speech given in 1959, King specifically addresses Robert Williams’s criticism. Williams accused King of only encouraging Blacks to be non-violent while being silent on America’s use of violence to suppress communism. King affirms he is against the use of violence by all actors. He opposed the war and the atomic bomb.
Truman Nelson wrote many books on the abolitionist movement. He compared the methods of Dr. King and Robert Williams to the abolitionists of the 1800s. He concluded that Mr. Williams’s efforts most parallel the abolitionist, and King’s strategy was incomplete.
Both William Lloyd Garrison and Henry David Thoreau began as pacifists. However, once they saw slaveholders use violence to hold on to power, they pivoted in favor of self-defense. Garrison went as far as supporting warfare in the case of John Brown’s raid. Oppressors never give up power unless forced.
Nelson also differentiates between vowing not to protect oneself versus not protecting others. It could be seen as moral to not fight back in self-defense, but cowardice cannot defend one’s brother. Gandhi went as far as to say “rivers of blood may flow, but let it be our (Indian) blood.” Is Gandhi showing moral superiority by sacrificing his fellow Hindus? What gives him the authority to make such a decision. One could ask the same question of King when he says protesters “should go to jail as a bridegroom enters the bride chambers.” Southern jails are known for torturing and assaulting prisoners. How can he ask his followers to go through this avoidable trauma?
The below quote sums up Truman Nelson’s view of non-violence for the Black Americans.
The American Negro is not a downtrodden Hindu, a palpitating mass of ingrained and inborn submission to being put in his place, a citizen of a land so impoverished and barren that a lifetime of abject starvation is the common lot, a land where living is so hard most want a God so they can hate him.
The American Negro is a citizen of a rich land, with a citizen’s rights and duty to resist all attempts to deprive him of its manifold blessings. Why should he be urged to go through this Hinduizing to regain the rights he already won in 1776?
Marc Schleifer wrote “A socialist plea for Black Nationalism” and was a writer for many socialist publications. He said Robert Williams would fit into the radical left labor traditions very easily. The old left holding onto the New Deal, opposes black militancy. Their way is dead as the New Deal loses more effectiveness every day. The new, more radical left can learn from Robert Williams. Black militancy is a new way forward for racial equality.