Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on Non-Violence and Natural Law
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is internationally recognized for his iconic leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, which resulted in a furthering of social justice and fairness for people of color. Moreover, the work of King and his movement resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One of the key strategies that King embraced -- in addition to his soaring oratory, his charisma and his skills as a creative writer -- was the use of nonviolence. This paper reviews and critically evaluates his use of -- and advocacy of -- nonviolence in social change movements, and his use of natural law.
King's Education (Academics / Social Injustice)
In A.L. Herman's book, Community, Violence, & Peace, he presents sections on Gandhi, Buddha, Leopold and King. On page 120 Herman explains that King had passed the entrance exam to get into Atlanta's prestigious Morehouse College "at the age of fifteen without graduating from high school." In order to pay his way through college, King worked on a tobacco farm in Connecticut, where he "expressly enjoyed the personal and social freedom" that a black man could experience in New England (he could sit anywhere in restaurants and movie theaters) (Herman, 120).
However, on his way back to Atlanta from New England, the train he was taking entered Virginia and, as he did earlier on the trip, he thought he could walk into the dining car and find a seat to his liking. But when the waiter "led him to a rear table and pulled a curtain down to shield the white passengers from his presence," he knew he was back in the segregated South (Herman, 120). He stared at the curtain, incredulous that others "would find him so offensive," Herman wrote. "I felt as though the curtain had dropped on my selfhood," King remarked later to a friend (Herman, 120). There is no verification that this was a seminal moment for King, and certainly there were many, many moments and incidents in his young years when it became obvious to him that the evil institution of segregation needed to be challenged.
Herman made it clear -- and this is an important fact to remember when considering King's remarkable legacy -- that when King later graduated from Morehouse College and was lined up to attend Crozer Seminary, he wasn't thinking big picture that he would become a pivotal mover and shaker in the civil rights effort. He just intended "…to become a well-educated Christian minister" (Herman, 120).
Author Lerone Bennett Jr. has written a biography of King, and he adds to the narrative as to how King first came to be interested in Gandhi. Bennett claims that during King's senior year at Crozer Theological Seminary he read with great interest Reverend Walter Rauschenbusch's book Christianity and the Social Crisis. In that text the minister applied the "social principles of Jesus to the problems of the modern world" (Bennett, 1968, pp. 36-37). King later said that Rauschenbush's work "…left an indelible imprint on my thinking." The pivotal theme of the Rauschenbush book was that the church "should take a direct, active role in the struggle for social justice," and this was very poignant for King, and according to Bennett became "a pivotal element" in King's personal belief and philosophy (37).
Another event actually took place prior to King hearing a lecture (explained in the next section of this paper) about Gandhi; it was a lecture by a "Christian rebel" named A.J. Muste who championed a "nonviolent approach" to social change. King though was not "overly impressed" with Muste at that time in his educational career (in 1950) because the idea of "turn the other cheek" for King was only valid in conflicts between two people, and not valid when racial groups and nations were in conflict.
The Literature -- King Learns About Gandhi's Movement
Meanwhile, the three-volume work titled The Papers on Martin Luther King, Jr. offers a treasure trove of background, direct quotes, and personal letters from King. Senior Editor Clayborne Carson explains that King "undoubtedly" came to initially learn about the Gandhian independence movement while attending Morehouse (Carson, 1997, p. 16). Professor Benjamin Mays on occasion spoke of his travels to India on Tuesday mornings at Morehouse, when Mays gave lectures to the student body, Carson explains. The first "extensive" exposure that King had to the strategies of Gandhi, Carson continues, happened while King was studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. At that time King was reportedly "inspired by a lecture at Philadelphia's Friendship House" by the president of Howard University, Mordecai Johnson, Carson recounts on page 16.
King was "overwhelmed by Johnson's suggestion that the moral power of Gandhian nonviolence could revolutionize race relations in the United States," author Herman writes on page 120 of his book. Herman quotes King: "I had heard of Gandhi… [but Johnson's] message was… profound and electrifying…" (120).
Based on inspiration from that lecture, King went out and purchased "a half-dozen books on Gandhi's life and works" and according to King's close friend and mentor, J. Pius Barbour, King argued in favor of using Gandhian methodology while he was still in seminary (Carson, 16). However, even before becoming aware of Gandhi's nonviolent approach to civil disobedience and social change -- and prior to the Montgomery bus boycott -- King was preaching about love towards enemies, and in that regard he used a passage from the Book of Matthew: "…Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you…" (Carson, 17). But while the bus boycott was in full swing -- this was a period of time after he had studied Gandhi's tactics and philosophy -- King seamlessly merged Gandhian principals with Christian theology in his speeches and writings.
It should be noted here that King was also very cognizant that many of the "Negroes of Montgomery" were motivated more by Christ's Sermon on the Mount than by "passive resistance" and hence, he toned down his new-found admiration for Gandhi (Carson, 17). King was a leader of enormous intelligence, and his political skills were extremely well honed, so he understood what subjects to give emphasis to, he understood the importance of timing, and in the case of the Montgomery bus boycott, he did not push the wrong buttons with local activists, lest he lose their support. That having been said, when civil rights activists Bayard Rustin and Glenn E. Smiley arrived in Montgomery -- both men with vast experience in Gandhian techniques -- King's sense of local political dynamics was challenged.
King welcomed the assistance of Rustin, and even invited Rustin to participate in Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) meetings. However, King, who was politically savvy, knew that local white leaders that were arresting demonstrators and launching racist diatribes against the MIA would see people like Rustin as outside agitators and use demagoguery against them. The last thing King needed as he led this movement for fairness vis-a-vis public transportation was for local white leaders to denounce the MIA as being promoted by "New Yorkers, northern agitators, and communists…" (Carson, 18).
But you didn't have to be an outsider like Rustin to be subjected to the wrath, hatred and vitriol that Blacks faced from the local city fathers in Montgomery. Juliette Morgan, a white citizen, wrote a letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser (the daily newspaper) pointing out the similarities between King's efforts with the MIA and Gandhi's Indian independence campaign. Not long afterwards, she was fired as city librarian. Standing up for justice in the Deep South in that ear was fraught with personal and professional peril.
Meanwhile, in the richly interesting Papers of Martin Luther King there are myriad copies of correspondence to and from King between December 1955 and December 1956. Among them, a letter from King to Professor E.T. Sandberg of Warburg College is worthy of inclusion in this research. In a letter postmarked March 23, 1956, Sandberg urged King to publicly state that "passive resistance" (and not some form of mob mentality) "was central" to the success of the boycott (Carson, 276). King replied on May 31, 1956 from Montgomery, first apologizing for the long delay in responding, which was "not due to sheer negligence, but to the pressure in the involved situation" (Carson, 276). King related that "…the Gandhian influence has been at the center of our movement… we are using passive resistance as the method and love as the regulating ideal" (Carson, 276).
The Literature -- King Fashions a Campaign Based on Gandhi's Movement
"I feel that this way of nonviolence is vital because it is the only way to reestablish the broken community. It… seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, or irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep…" King's speech on "The Broken Community" presented before the National Press Club…