From our archives: ‘Which path for civil rights? Nonviolence was Dr. King’s Plea’

After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the Monitor considered what might happen to the civil rights movement that had, for many around the world, become synonymous with him. This article from April 6, 1968, traces the thread of nonviolence through King's life – how it evolved and the forces arrayed against it when he was killedPart of a 2019 archival project on Dr. King.

What remains to be seen is whether nonviolent protest as an effective weapon in the civil-rights movement was shattered by that shot which felled the man who so long had been its champion and its symbol.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. symbolized in his person the civil-rights movement. And as a symbol he was unchallenged and without peer. He symbolized hope. He symbolized achievement - albeit more limited than many might yearn for. He symbolized courage. He symbolized the burden and the pain that the Negro still endures. He symbolized above all the idealism at the heart of the dream, the very American dream, of which he spoke so fervently before the Lincoln Memorial on that hot August day in 1963.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” - The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963

Goad to national conscience

Within the United States, for all the controversy that he sometimes stirred, he was the most respected of prominent Negroes. Abroad he was of them the best known. The seal on his international fame came with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

What apparently qualified him for the prize was his dedication to nonviolence, for which his exemplar was Mahatma Gandhi. But the fount of the ideology which he sought to make his own was a compatriot of his of an earlier age - the New England philosopher, Henry Thoreau. Yet for his nonviolence to be effective, he found he had to harness it to direct action or confrontation. And this in turn often produced or provoked violence. Whether this was his intention or not, the projection of this violence on television screens in homes across the land was an effective goad to the national conscience.

Born in Georgia, he became a national figure in 1955-56 when - still in his 20’s - he was serving as a Baptist minister in Montgomery, Ala. In 1954, the wheel of history had taken one of its visible turns with the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools.

Struggle shifted northward

This was a manifestation of forces beginning to stir in American society toward an assertion of the black man’s long-standing constitutional rights. And these were the same forces that swept Dr. King to the fore as he took command of the Montgomery bus boycott.

There followed the sit-ins, the freedom rides, Birmingham and Selma - to recall only a few milestones along the road. What evolved was a technique that had stepped out from the long pattern of process through the courts, whose culmination was that 1954 Supreme Court ruling.

It involved active protest but eschewed violence, even in the face of violence. Dr. King always insisted that for him nonviolence was a way of life, which he underpinned with his interpretation of Christian teaching. His vehicle was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which he founded in 1957.

Broadly speaking, his methods proved successful in a Southern rural setting where - at the beginning of his crusade - de jure segregation was his target, and where the authorities who sought to maintain it often resorted to manifest brutality and tyranny.

But when the struggle shifted northward to the great urban centers where segregation was de facto, and where white society’s methods were more subtle, Dr. King’s technique failed to work in the same way. His efforts in Chicago in 1966, for example, lighted no prairie fire.

His frustrations on the new battlefield were in great measure responsible for his widening the embrace of his movement to include campaigning against the war in Vietnam. To him, not only was this war incompatible with his pacifism but it siphoned off from the national effort in behalf of black Americans both funds and energy.

And all the while, black militants who did not abjure violence seemed to be winning wider sympathy with the argument that the nonviolent technique had run its course, and that it was unlikely to win from society what (in black men’s eyes ) still had to be won.

Dr. King apparently saw in the trouble which developed in Memphis from February onward in opening to prove that there was still opportunity for him and the methods which he had always advocated. What many outsiders had seen as just another labor dispute involving a public service had been to Negroes a race issue from the start. It was the kind of rumbling volcano which Dr. King had been able to seize on in the past to win, in the end, a further step forward for black men.

His first foray into Memphis last week had been a fiasco. He returned this week for a second try. This ended with the assassin's bullet Thursday night. This was 1968, not 1963 or 1964.

Other quotes that ran on front page with article: 

“Once again the heart of America is heavy - the spirit of America weeps - for a tragedy that denies the very meaning of our land . . . . All men . . . must stand their ground to deny violence its victory.” - President Johnson

“The cause for which he marched and worked will find new strength. The blight of discrimination, poverty and neglect must be erased from America, an America of full freedom, full and equal opportunity shall be his living memorial.” - Vice-President Humphrey

“Let’s not burn America down. We must - we must - maintain and advocate and promote the philosophy of nonviolence.” - Hosea Williams, one of Dr. King’s close advisers

“Our greatest tribute to him will be to bear ourselves as he would want us to - with dignity and prayer.” - New York Mayor John V. Lindsay

Download the original PDF of this article here.

© 1968 The Christian Science Monitor. Reprinted with permission. Image retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers produced by ProQuest CSA LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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