There was lots of Martin Luther King, Jr. talk yesterday and like every time there’s been lots of MLK talk over the past few years I’m struck that almost no attention is given to the fact that he was a very serious pacifist. Of course, it’s a cliché at this point to note that King’s actual views were really a good deal more radical than those of the cuddly Iconic MLK that’s been created as part of the post-sixties American settlement. But I think my pet overlooked element is more noteworthy than everyone else. After all, it’s precisely because of his advocacy of non-violence that it’s possible for King to have been transformed into a non-threatening icon. King wasn’t a radical, wasn’t someone who talked about doing things “by any means necessary,” and wasn’t an advocate of rioting.
But consider how radical that stance was — and is.
By what passes for mainstream opinion about the political use of violence in contemporary America, after all, the appropriate thing for African-American residents of the segregated south would have been to try to get their way through the widespread use of high explosives throughout Dixie aimed at destroying the command and control centers of the security forces (i.e., police stations) along with vital infrastructure (roads, bridges, rail lines, power plants). That kind of widespread destruction would, of course, have caused a certain amount of loss of innocent life, but unlike the bad guys in the conflict who deliberately targeted civilians by siccing dogs on children and so forth, the good guys make every effort to avoid civilian loss of life. Some people might condemn that kind of violent campaign as obviously counterproductive, and destined to result only in northern whites completely abandoning support for civil rights and instead backing southern whites in a campaign of brutal repression. But those people would fail to exhibit the appropriate moral clarity. They would be, in effect, apologists for the system of American apartheid. What’s more, if the previous hundred years of American history had taught us anything it was appeasement wasn’t going to work to resolve this issue — white supremacists had no interest in compromising.
Obviously, King and the Civil Rights movement didn’t go down that road. And when, after King’s death, fringe elements in the black community did take steps down they road they wound up accomplishing nothing. But things very plausibly could have taken a violent turn — it would hardly be unusual for an ethnic conflict to turn persistently violent. And of course a turn to violence would have been an absolute disaster for the country, and resulted in a much much worse situation than the one we now enjoy. The legacy of racial conflict still scars America, of course, but it scars it much less than it might not only because the sins of segregation were undone but because they were undone specifically through non-violent means that allowed for relatively rapid reconciliation once the core political conflict had played out.
In retrospect, this seems obvious to everyone. The moral force of non-violent protest won friends and allies to the cause, exposed the crass immorality of Civil Rights’ opponents, and was forceful enough to bring about major change while also being low-key enough to take “yes” for an answer rather than turning into an endless cycle of recriminations. And yet these ideas about conflict and its resolution seem almost entirely absent from our present-day discourse about to think about violence and its utility. This even though King’s non-violence stemmed not from some esoteric element of his life, but from Christianity — a faith that’s pervasively present in American politics, but whose practical political upshot these days is support for large-scale and casual deployment of violence.