MLK’s strategy for nonviolence had reached its limit. Remember that.

If you want to remember Martin Luther King. If you want to honor his legacy. Then remember all of him.

This especially applies to white people who have a habit of reducing Dr. King to this safe, agreeable negro that they’re comfortable with, when they try to shame Black folks for their anger by saying, “MLK wouldn’t do this. He would be ashamed.”

The earlier MLK? Absolutely. But King’s stance changed considerably before they had him taken out. By 1968 he believed we were no closer to equality than when he started his activism a decade earlier.

Lisa Wang, Harvard University’s 2011 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing explores the drastically changing views of Dr. Martin Luther King in her writing below:


WHEN IT COMES TO THE IMAGE OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr., there would seem to be little debate: he was an idealistic martyr for civil rights, a man who pressed for his “Dream” through doctrines of nonviolent resistance, patience and redemption. In a certain sense, he is a model fo what can only be described as superhuman restraint, godly wisdom and infinite love, and it was these characteristics that positioned King to lead a successful civil rights movement that transformed the basic social and legal framework of the United States. But this image of King persists desptie a critical fact we have yet to address fully: in his later writing, King began to question his emphasis on patience, redemption and brotherly love. Where he professed in 1958 a “deep faith in future” and the “democratic ideal of freedom and equality … for all,” a decade later he was conceding that his staunch belief in nonviolent resistance needed a different reckoning. Today, we seem to know little of the extent to which he found that his work had not achieved true equality, in his words, beyond a mere “absence of brutality and unregenerate evil.” We might be surprised at King’s admission that, after a decade of work, “Negroes have established a foothold, no more” and that nonviolence had “not been playing its transforming role.” King in these later writing had lost faith in the transformative potential of his earlier belief in nonviolence, and it is a loss of faith we rarely acknowledge.

How do we make sense of this change in King’s beliefs, and how do we account for our image of King as an unshakable crusader for nonviolent resistance, universal justice, and brotherhood? It might be easier of us to deal with King’s own professed inconsistencies and questions by ignoring them, dismissing them or marginalizing them. However, it would be deceptive to believe in such a depiction of King or to accept the enormous potential of nonviolent resistance as King originally presented. To examine this unexplored transformation we will consider works from the earliest and latest points of King’s civil rights career: his 1958 memoir Stride toward Freedom, a 1968 reflection called Where do We Go from Here?, and a 1968 reflection article titled “Showdown for Nonviolence.” By focusing on these moments that bookend much of his work, we can more clearly see the stark contrast in King’s changing ideology. There is, in other words, an important shift in the course of King’s work that these moments highlight. We may be tempted to understand this shift as simply a reflection fo the difficulties of the time period, and to write King’s wavering faith as simply his acceptance of the slow pace of change. However, this paper argues that we can better understand this radical transformation as King’s realization that change through nonviolent resistance had actually reached its potential. This change suggests, simultaneously, that King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance had also reached its limits.

Before we ask why King shifted his stance on nonviolence, let’s take a closer look at his troubled attitude toward it. In the 1960s, King reversed his original vision on race relations from a horizontal connection focused on reciprocity, brotherly love, and redemption to a more vertical, contractual, and antagonistic relationship. Despite King’s earlier prostrations for agape, or brotherly love, to define the African American’s relationship to the prevailing culture of the United States, the term is not mentioned in his 11960s writing. Forsaking his 1958 call for “understanding, redemptive goodwill,” King bluntly declared in 1968 that “White America has allowed itself to indifferent to race prejudice and economic denial.” This marks an important shift in King’s thinking. He previously had placed the burden of change on African Americans, and his writing reflected the belief that African Americans needed to forgive, love and exist peacefully with the prevailing culture or America. In 1958, King writes: “Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is a love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it…It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community.”  By 1968, however, he begins to transfer that sense of agency to whites. By referring to “[t]he future [that Americans] are asked to inaugurate… To end poverty [and] extirpate prejudice” in 1968, King attached important conditions to a race relationship that he previously approached with the language of unconditional love. King’s change in language here can be described as a shift from a focus on religious goodwill and cohabitation to a more contractual obligation. The shift in King’s thinking is clear: agape was beginning to fade as a reality by the late 1960s.

A cursory reading might construe King’s shift as a result of a change in the presiding sentiment in the white community at the time. The logic here is simple and compelling: in 1958, King could talk about agape because whites were responding to his ideas, but in 2968 the increased stubbornness of whites forced him to be more demanding. In other words, King was only as magnanimous in his hopes for a communal racial order as the proportion of whites who appeared to be receptive to such a vision. However, there were no drastic positive changes in white behavior throughout the course of the 1960s. This cursory reading would also ignore the extent to which the white community in the late 1950s was uncomfortable with the thought of change. In 1958, for instance, King himself had decried the country’s “tenacious and determined resistance” to change as the very impetus of the civil rights movement; and yet, he managed to believe at the time in forgiveness and redemption for the abuses the African American community endured. In other words, this resistance from the prevailing white culture of America was largely the same a decade later, when King seemed to give up on agape. Clearly, King’s altered understanding of race relations did not reflect a change in attitude in the prevailing culture of the United States. In fact, we could argue that it was quite the opposite: his transformation in thinking actually reflected a frustration with the lack of change in those attitudes. It is no secret that, even after historical civil rights legislation, African Americans continued to find their civil rights violated and continued to find equal employment a distant reality. Simply put, King had hoped that nonviolence would spark far more change. His sense of agape, however boundless, could never be realized when the prevailing culture remained unwilling to negotiate its social position and wealth.

Kings’s discovery of the limits of his earlier tenets caused a change in tone from hopeful patience in 1957 to frustration in 1968. In 1958, for instance, King urged his followers to love for “the need of the other person” and “expect no good in return, only hostility and persecution.” But King’s later writings became more aggravated. In 1968, in his “Showdown for Nonviolence,” King reflected on his “bitter experience” even though he had cautioned his early followers against “succumb[ing]” to the temptation of becoming bitter. In this article, King delivered a no-hold-barred account of the disappointments that marked the civil rights struggle for African Americans. he lamented the United States’ “tragic mix-up in priorities” (like spending more on the Vietnam War than on domestic programs) and its insufficient social legislation when compared to European nations. King concluded: “All of the misery that stoked the flames of rage and rebellion remains undiminished.” Statements like this reveal the extent to which he was becoming bitter at the pace of social change envisioned by his original faith in nonviolence. Despite professing in 1957 to expect little more than “hostility and persecution,” King was becoming frustrated just a decade later.

Full essay at Harvard Writes.


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