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Martin Luther King, Jr.: Nonviolence with people we do not know
by Rene Wadlow
2008-01-21 09:13:58
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Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the one who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and moral answer to the oppressed people’s cry for justice, non-violent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

The clearest image that remains of Martin Luther King Jr. was the August 1963 march on Washington to protest racism, violence, and poverty. Martin Luther King gave his inspired “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial with Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez singing “We Shall overcome.” The march was an important step toward the passage by the US Congress of the Civil Rights Bill.

King had come on to the civil rights scene in 1956 with the start of the Montgomery bus boycott when his natural leadership qualities were recognized by older civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. had the advantage of being the son of Martin Luther King Sr. — a well respected Baptist minister and head of the leading Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, Georgia. King Jr. had gone for his studies to Boston University and was influenced there by Howard Thurman, who had been a classmate of his father. Thurman was a leading Negro clergyman, a professor, civil rights activists, and follower of the thinking of Mahatma Gandhi. Thurman was as well a lyric writer of prose poems — a style which the younger King took over with talent. Thurman had been minister of one of the first deliberately integrated churches in California in the 1940s, which served as a model for the integration of believers.

King was aware that there was a moral difference between integration and desegregation. For him, desegregation was a first step because it eliminated discrimination in those areas of social life that can be corrected by law. Integration is more inclusive and implies a loving acceptance of individuals and groups into the total range of human activity. Without integration, desegregation can create “a society where men are physically desegregated, where elbows are together and hearts apart. It gives us social togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.”

Martin Luther King Jr. had strong and broadly-based support for his desegregation work. There were few appealing champions of segregation. Police and their snarling police dogs were hardly poster images for those who wanted to keep schools segregated and who wanted to prevent Black students from attending state-funded public universities. King could appeal to a common Christian, often Baptist, value system with the Whites of the South. While he did not convince those who believed that segregation of the races was the core of the “Southern Way of Life”, there was a sense in which people spoke a common language and made appeals to common symbols.

This broad-based support fell away when Martin Luther King Jr. turned his attention to the war in Vietnam. Although the war was never popular, in the mid-1960s the war was largely supported by most except those who were against all wars. The level of knowledge about Indochina among the US public was low, and there were few academic or State Department specialists as Indochina had always been considered as a zone of “French interests”.

Thus, when in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr.; started to speak out against the war, many of his colleagues in the civil rights movement were worried and advised against taking up an anti-war position. To be anti-war would alienate members of Congress whose support for civil rights legislation was necessary. There were liberals in government who were strong on civil rights but who supported the war — in fact, who were directing the war like Robert MacNamarra.

It was with care that King prepared his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, working on it for nearly a month before it was delivered at the University of Oslo in December 1964. It was a lecture that could not be in the sermon style of most of King’s talks. It was a lecture where people would not clap nor sing along, but where each position would be weighed. The lecture The World House called upon all to transcend tribe, race, class, nation and religion to embrace the vision of a World House, to eradicate at home and globally the Triple Evils of racism, poverty and militarism, and to resist social injustice and resolve conflicts in the spirit of love embodied in the philosophy and methods of non-violence. He warned that “All over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands. They are awake and moving toward their goal like a tidal wave. You can hear them rumbling in every village street, on the docks, in the houses, among the students, in churches and at political meetings.”

However, it was his words on the specific war in Vietnam which had the most impact and raised the most comment. There is an old US tradition that Americans are free to say what they want about government policy at home, but they should not be critical of US policy when abroad. Thus it was with care that King spoke out “So when in this day I see the leaders of nations again talking peace while preparing for war, I take fearful pause. When I see our country today intervening in what is basically a civil war, mutilating hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children with napalm, burning villages and rice fields at random, painting the valleys of that small Asian country red with human blood, leaving broken bodies in countless ditches and sending home half-men mutilated mentally and physically: when I see the unwillingness of our government to create the atmosphere for a negotiated settlement of this awful conflict by halting bombing in the North and agreeing unequivocally to talk with the Vietcong — I tremble for our world…Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war. We are called upon to look up from the quagmire of military programs and defense commitments and read the warnings on history’s signposts.” (1)

It was in the context of trying to find a non-violent and negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War that I met Martin Luther King Jr. in Geneva. In May 1967, there was a conference in Geneva organized by Robert Hutchins who had been an innovative educator as president of the University of Chicago and then created a Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in California with some of the people who had been with him in Chicago. The conference was called Pacem in Terris after the encyclical on peace of Pope John XXIII. There were a good number of people invited who were interested in political philosophy and world order studies. There was also a not-very-hidden agenda to the conference which was to try to open paths for negotiations with North Vietnam and the Vietcong. Thus there were a large number of people from countries that might facilitate contact such as Poland, East Germany and India. There were three, not particularly philosophically-minded people from Laos, including Princess Souvanna Phouma of the then ruling royal family of Laos. There were South Vietnamese Buddhists who were called “neutralists” at the time, when some of us hoped that there could be a Vietnamese “third force” which would bring peace. Thich Nhat Hanh who had founded the Social Research School at Van Hanh Buddhist University of Saigon was there. Afterwards, he was in exile in Europe and the USA and became well known as a teacher of Zen. Tran Van Huu who was then the president of the Committee for Peace and Reconciliation of South Vietnam was there, as was U. Thant, Secretary General of the UN who as a Burmese Buddhist was personally concerned although the UN was able to play no positive role in the Indochina conflict at the time.

I had been working on a “third force” approach to the Vietnam War for a number of years so I had private conversations with those interested. Martin Luther King Jr. was there, and he later facilitated contacts for Thich Nhat Hanh with US political figures. Although there had been some earlier contacts by the Pacem in Terris organizers with North Vietnamese diplomats, no one from North Vietnam or the Vietcong participated

It is hard to practice non-violence with people we do not know and with whom it is nearly impossible to contact. Just a year after the Pacem in Terris meeting, in April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the Indochina war dragged on to 1975 — even longer if one considers the Vietnamese intervention into Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge as part of the same war – which I would;

Looking back, one always wonders if one could have done more, what would have happened if King had lived? What if the Buddhists in Vietnam had been better organized? Perhaps all we can say, along with Martin Luther King is “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter –but beautiful- struggle for a new world.”

* * * * *

(1) The World House in Martin Luther King Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968)

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Emanuel Paparella2008-01-21 10:36:57
If one visits the Martin Luther King Historical Site in Atlanta one will notice a statue of Mahatma Gandhi placed there some ten years ago. It is fitting that it be there, for it was Gandhi who inspired King in the genial tactics of non-violent means in the struggle against racism and the promotion of civil rights and social justice, without resorting to the gun. He had well learned from Gandhi that it was a misnomer to label such opposition “passive resistance.” To the contrary it was a very active mode of resistance, albeit non-violent, requiring even more courage than the conventional rebellion with a gun. It was power all right, but it was not soul power, rather the conventional Machivellian conception of power practiced by most nations. The barrel of a gun might bring about change but hardly ever lasting peace. In turn Gandhi, as well as Desmond Tutu in South Africa, were originally inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s ideas on civil disobedience. Those courageous men are all to be honored, for they went beyond theory and showed us in practice the terrible beauty of genuine peace.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-21 10:40:57
Correction: the above sentence should read thus: "it was power all right, but it was soul power, rather than the conventional Machiavellian conception of power practiced by most nations."

Sand2008-01-22 15:27:33
No doubt Gandhi and King brought about change but to claim they brought peace is a totally cockeyed evaluation of the current world situation.

Jack2008-01-22 18:24:29
Yes, I too believe Gandhi inspired King and many others...Tuto, Mandella etc. In an upcoming article about Gandhi (Jan 30th) you can clearly see similar methods that each used...peaceful resistance, mass non-violent demonstrations...boycotts. When business's literal bottom dollar is affected, society is often effected. It is like using a thundering velvet hand. There is power in numbers, and that power does not necessarily need violent overthrow. A peaceful, moral victory has longer lasting value than social upheal and violence, which leave a bitter taste in the mouth for generations to come. It is often more productive to follow peaceful means that forcing the hand of those currently holding power.

Jack2008-01-22 18:30:05
By the way, thanks for such clarity in this article. I hope that we can see that change doesn't begin with changing others...but with changing ourselves.

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