(note; I write on this blog about business topics, business books – and a few other subjects. I also teach Speech. This article refers to a section of what some call the greatest speech delivered in the United States in the 20th Century).
Today is Martin Luther King Day. I have read his words, watched him on video, read biographies. He was a remarkable man – a remarkable leader.
In this year, on this day, maybe it would be good to remember his clarion call for non-violence.
He had reason to demand change. He was the Pastor of the church where Rosa Parks was a member. Her “crime” was technically a crime, but a crime based on an unjust law. Dr. King would later write:
I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail – read the full text of the letter here).
And he knew that to gain freedom, to gain equality and justice, he had to “demand it.”
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. (Again, from the Letter from Birmingham Jail).
But, how to demand it? This is where Dr. King’s greatness is seen. He believed in demanding it/taking it without violence. His friends had been beaten. Some had been killed. (many, over the decades). Freedom Riders had had their heads bashed in. (Here’s one example: just read the Wikipedia article about Congressman John Lewis, regarding his early activist years. For a gripping photograph of John Lewis, with bandages on the back of his head after being beaten by the KKK, in 1961, go to this Slate.com Magnum Photos slide show — look at picture #6. The photo is from a press conference, and the future Congressman Lewis is seated next to Dr. King).
But Dr. King was certain that to respond to violence with violence was not the answer. Here are words from his greatest speech, I Have a Dream, delivered at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 (read the full speech here):
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
Today, in relative comfort, four decades removed from the turmoil of that era, we forget that the approach of non-violence was not guaranteed to “win” the day. There were other voices, recommending other paths — like Malcolm X, in a speech delivered some eight months after Dr. King’s, on April 3, 1964: The Ballot or the Bullet (read the full speech here):
The question tonight, as I understand it, is “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go From Here?” or What Next?” In my little humble way of understanding it, it points toward either the ballot or the bullet.
If we don’t do something real soon, I think you’ll have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It’s one or the other in 1964. It isn’t that time is running out – time has run out!
There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death. The only difference about this kind of death — it’ll be reciprocal.
The black nationalists aren’t going to wait. Lyndon B. Johnson is the head of the Democratic Party. If he’s for civil rights, let him go into the Senate next week and declare himself. Let him go in there right now and declare himself. Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party. Let him go in there right now and take a moral stand — right now, not later. Tell him, don’t wait until election time. If he waits too long, brothers and sisters, he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of. In 1964, it’s the ballot or the bullet.
The contrast is so stark. And the judgement of history is correct. Dr. King’s speech was the greatest delivered in the era – not the one by Malcom X. Why? Because, ultimately, the path of non-violence is the better path.
This is the message of Dr. King. But his was not a soft message. He had studied Gandhi. He believed that the path of non-violence was the path that had the greatest possibility of success. Dr. King believed that the path of violence was both wrong, but also a losing path.
On Martin Luther King Day, let’s remember the turmoil of his era, the path he beckoned us toward, and the truth that the struggle for justice – justice for all – is ongoing, for us and our children and our grandchildren, and generations to come. And let’s remember his message: that freedom must be demanded, but never with acts of violence.