King and Nonviolence

Martin Luther King Jr.’s notion that we shouldn’t have massive state-sponsored racial discrimination is sufficiently uncontroversial at this point that I doubt I need to say anything particularly profound about it. A less-discussed point is his influence as a leader of social movements and a tactician. His letter from the Birmingham jail is famous, but in many ways addresses itself to the wrong tactical question. These days, people will find it easy to understand why King and his followers weren’t going to far. The pressing question is why didn’t they go further. The apartheid system in the old south, after all, was backed up by a massive coercive apparatus that was not shy about using force — either at the hands of the official security services or else by any number of white supremacist militias and paramilitaries — to maintain its hold on power.

The only previous episode in American history when the legal condition of African-Americans had improved substantially involved, of course, the liberal application of force. Indeed, the Civil War was — by far — the single most violent episode in American history, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and vast portions of Confederate infrastructure in ruins. Those gains had been partially reversed by a post-war white supremacist countermobilization that, again, was unafraid to deploy violence. Under the circumstances, it would have been natural to conclude that the only thing the white south understands is force, that the use of force was eminently justified, and the time had come to launch a massive campaign of violent resistance.

King and other leaders of the civil rights movement apparently took their Christianity more seriously than a lot of people do, however, and, following in part in the political example of Gandhi, set out on a different path. A path that, seemingly, actually generates much more success than do strategies of violent insurgency. Nevertheless, you tend to see all around the world on both sides of various issues, a tendency to massively overstate the utility of force.