I think I’ve written some variation on this ever year now for several years, but I do always wish that praise and attention for Martin Luther King, Jr. would pay more attention to his teachings on violence and non-violence. Not that the calls for racial justice are unimportant. On the contrary. But from the standpoint of 2008, these are pretty easy lessons to take to heart. We’ve by no means conquered bias and prejudice or overcome the lingering scars of the major injustices of the past, but on the level of message nowadays you don’t see anyone within a thousand miles of mainstream politics denying the desirability of racial equality.
On violence, we’re in another world entirely. By the standards of today’s discourse, King would be considered deeply unserious. Serious people understand that if you think something is important, the serious way to go about expressing that is by voicing support for having other people go kill other people. Doubts about the ethics of such action are loathesome moral equivalence and doubts about their wisdom demonstrate naïveté. King wouldn’t qualify as a “civil rights Democrat”—not enough bloodshed.
The irony is that adherence to nonviolence is one of the main reasons King is such an admired and mainstream figure today. If he’d decided à la Tom Friedman that the white south needed a “suck on this” moment, or followed the lead of Hamas or Shimon Peres in deciding the best way to teach the population a lesson was to terrorize them, he’d be a jailed or executed despised criminal. And the ethic of nonviolence that King appealed to has deep roots in the Christian tradition that unites the majority of black and white Americans. And yet even though this Christian nonviolence is in many ways the most mainstream aspect of this radical figure who’s become a mainstream icon, it’s something that none dare take seriously today.