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MLK’s prescription for protests: nonviolent, but also unceasing and disruptive

In the face of oppression, inaction was not an option. But King also thought violence was ultimately self-destructive.

A woman addressed a crowd gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on June 4.
A woman addressed a crowd gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on June 4.Win McNamee/Getty

“In the halls of Congress, Negro lives are too cheap to justify resolute measures; it is easier to speculate in blood and do nothing.”

So wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, mere days before his own death. King was thinking about the unrest that shook hundreds of American cities in 1967, and he condemned policy makers for their failure to address the oppression that had caused those violent uprisings. King warned America’s political leaders that another “winter of delay” would lead to more “long hot summers.”

With protesters taking to the streets in hundreds of American cities — the vast majority of them waging peaceful demonstrations — it has been common for observers to cite King while they denounce the concurrent episodes of violence or looting.

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King did indeed oppose the use of violence, but his understanding of the situation in the late 1960s was far more complex than most Americans might realize. In our current moment of urgency and rage, his words can prove instructive. By recalling King’s words, we might articulate a position that builds on his own — a position that, most importantly, demands structural changes in our society to end police violence, yet readily recognizes the self-defeating nature of looting and destruction.

In a letter mailed to friends of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in early April 1968, King appealed for funds for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was King’s final nonviolent crusade, a movement for economic justice. As King looked ahead fearfully to the summer of 1968, he opened the letter on a striking note: “Our national government is playing Russian roulette with riots; it gambles with another summer of disaster.”

Shortly after Detroit had exploded in riots in July 1967, President Lyndon Johnson formed a committee to study the uprisings. The Kerner Commission released its report in February 1968. It detailed oppressive conditions in the cities, faulted American leaders for failing to combat those conditions, and warned that further government inaction would sentence the cities — and the country — to a grim future. President Johnson’s inaction continued. So King reported to his allies: “Not a single basic social cause of riots has been corrected.” As he pointed out, “It was obdurate government callousness to misery that first stoked the flames of rage and frustration.”

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King argued that policy makers needed to institute systemic reforms. And he lamented that “the only systematic response to riots are feverish military preparations for repression.” King used much of the same language in the final published writing of his life. It was titled “Showdown for Nonviolence,” and it appeared in the April 16, 1968, issue of Look magazine. (The magazine hit the newsstands on April 2, two days before King’s assassination.) In that article, King specifically faulted the police and National Guard for “feverishly preparing” for repression. One cannot help but draw parallels to the current president and his zeal to unleash the military against American citizens. King’s phrase also brings to mind the scene in Washington’s Lafayette Square, where law enforcement officials rode on horseback and gassed nonviolent protesters in order to stage a photo opportunity for the president.

King was murdered on April 4, 1968. His death triggered violent eruptions in dozens of cities. That night, President Johnson urged Americans to reject “blind violence” while other civil rights leaders claimed that rioters were trampling on King’s legacy. But King had already given his reply. In his letter to SCLC donors, King concluded: “We cannot condone either violence or the equivalent evil of passivity.” Passivity in the face of injustice counted as an evil, and it was equal to violence.

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In the 1960s, King led nonviolent armies into the streets and paralyzed American cities. There could be no order, thought King, until justice reigned. Inaction was not an option. In his article in Look, King counseled “massive nonviolent action.” That remains his final message to us. Throughout his career, King urged Americans to take to the streets in demonstrations that were unceasing and disruptive yet also nonviolent.

King always remained committed to nonviolence, both as a matter of philosophy and of strategy. He thought violent rebellions were ultimately suicidal. In his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, King issued a stern warning to those who might attempt a violent uprising. African Americans confronted “a well-armed, wealthy majority with a fanatical right-wing that would delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women, and children.” These are jarring words. Yet as we live through weeks of escalating horrors — amid a coronavirus outbreak that has ravaged black communities while African Americans like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery are brutalized in our streets — King’s message retains a haunting power.

Jason Sokol is associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and the author of “The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”

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