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Why Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolence matters now more than ever

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN

People wake up and choose violence every day. In many ways, it’s human nature.

Headlines daily chronicle war, murder, crime, road rage, social media threats and trivial disputes that turn deadly, which is why the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta continues spreading King’s teachings on a more irenic way of life.

The center’s namesake is one of humanity’s great brokers of peace. A preacher and scholar, King relied not just on charisma but on coalitions which he and his acolytes schooled in nonviolence, inspired in part by Mohandas Gandhi’s movement in India.

The discipline made sense in the 1950s and 1960s when peaceful protesters were met by “Bull” Connor or Sheriff Jim Clark, who unleashed the full venom of law enforcement. Protesters’ nonviolent response to dogs, billy clubs and water cannons painted a necessary contrast for the North and the world: Here are the oppressors; there are the oppressed.

Decades after the movement yielded the Civil Rights Act and now-gutted Voting Rights Act — and optics of raw violence play a smaller role in national discourse — does nonviolence remain viable?

King’s youngest daughter, Bernice, believes so. It’s a slow road, but violence solves nothing, she said.

“It creates further problems and leads to damage and destruction and further alienation,” the minister and mediator said. “It doesn’t have an ultimate goal. The seeds of destruction are contained within violence, so the only thing that results from it is more violence.”

The King Center, where she’s CEO, has long imparted the philosophy, notably in South Africa, training voters ahead of its first multiracial election in 1994. Last month, honoring MLK Day, the center took its tutelage digital, offering a curriculum on the Nonviolence365 philosophy, her father’s campaigns and his vision for the “Beloved Community” where poverty and hate have no hold.

The class demonstrates how nonviolence can be harnessed in daily life, whether a neighborly or familial dispute, or a matter of equal pay or diversity at work. The center hopes to add versions geared toward corporations and K-12 students and educators.

The tenets serve as the backbone of a planned march on Washington, spearheaded by a North Carolina minister who continues MLK’s work of lifting the poor. They’ve also inspired a Maryland bluesman to seek out conversations with neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, one of whom says he now sees MLK’s wisdom.

While some point to the limitations of nonviolence, especially when people are defending themselves, Bernice King says it’s the only path to real change. She reminds doubters of her father’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

‘It’s James Crow, Esquire’

The King Center provided CNN access to the class, which takes about 15 hours to complete. It dispels the misconception nonviolence is pacifism, as well as the misnomer that violence is physical.

Cue Coretta Scott King, who founded the King Center in her basement in 1968. Days prior, just weeks after her husband was gunned down in Memphis, she addressed a crowd in the capital’s Resurrection City.

“In this society, violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence. Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting schoolchildren is violence. Punishing a mother and her child is violence. Discrimination against a working man is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt of poverty is violence. Even the lack of willpower to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence,” the widow said.

Other examples include suppressing votes and inaction on police brutality or climate change, King Center instructors emphasize. Barring children from learning about Black history or slavery is violent. Systemic inequality is violence, they say.

The Rev. William Barber is president of Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit advancing an “agenda that uplifts our deepest constitutional and moral values of love, justice and mercy.” The pandemic made his mission more urgent, as the widening gap between haves and have nots exposes a “scarcity of moral consciousness,” he said.

As lawmakers doled out tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, they balked on a living wage and meaningfully stopping evictions, Barber said. They continued to fund a “war economy” while Americans went hungry, he said.

“Those are the ‘Bull’ Connors of the day,” Barber said. “This is not Jim Crow. It’s James Crow, Esquire. … The moral crisis of this moment is our Jim Crow.”

While some might consider Coretta Scott King’s quote a platitude, Barber says every example she gave is extreme violence.

“They all have a death element in them,” he said. “People die when we don’t pay people a living wage. People die when we deny healthcare. People die when we don’t care for the climate.”

This isn’t reverential pontification. A study shows an estimated 874,000 American deaths in 2000 were attributable to low education, racial segregation, low social support, individual poverty, income inequality and area poverty. One co-author — Boston University epidemiologist Dr. Sandro Galea — told CNN, “I imagine that the estimates hold up reasonably well today.”

King’s daughter a work in progress

The King Center curriculum is broken into chunks and delivered from perspectives including activists, writers, scholars, clergy, former law enforcement, MLK lieutenant Andrew Young and Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, whose mother was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965.

Instructors provide context for the philosophy’s six principles, holding Kingian nonviolence:

  • is a way of life for courageous people
  • seeks to win friendship and understanding
  • works to defeat injustice, not people
  • believes unearned suffering for a just cause is redemptive and transformative
  • chooses love over hate
  • believes the universe is on the side of justice

Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed. His home was bombed. He received death threats and had a gun put to his head. He invariably responded with love. Bernice King’s mother, too, exemplified nonviolence, whether in the household or how she treated people who violated her, the daughter said.

Bernice led conferences on nonviolence in her late teens, but despite her mighty role models, she didn’t make the “intentional, focused commitment to nonviolence as a way of life” until she became King Center CEO a decade ago. She struggles at times and isn’t sure nonviolence can be perfected, she said. Like anything — say, weight loss — it’s easier when you have like-minded people backing you.

“If I might be frank, I have accountability people who are committed to this way as well. We hold each other accountable,” she said. “When I get to those spaces and places when I forsake what I know is the right pathway, they’ll check me — and I allow myself to be checked, more importantly.”

Nonviolence is the long game. Despite desegregating buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, Barber says the battle continues.

“You have to have an eternal dissatisfaction with injustice. You have to have an eternal dissatisfaction with hate — to the point that I will engage in any way to change it, but that doesn’t include me becoming the very thing I’m trying to change,” Barber said. “That’s why you get up every morning working for justice, and what wakes you up is not your alarm clock but your purpose.”

There are no weigh stations in a movement. One never knows where they are in “the fight for justice and love and mercy,” Barber said, but nonviolence isn’t about instant gratification. Practitioners might not see the fruit of their toils, Bernice King added, but the next generation’s inheritance must remain top of mind.

“If I spent my entire time trying to be as violent or (exacting) as much violence as I can against those who’ve been violent toward me, when I’m gone what have I left my kids?” she asked.

Collecting the robes of Klansmen

MLK’s philosophy often guides Daryl Davis. The musician, whose story the King Center offers as extracurricular study, grew up attending schools across the world. His first experience with racism came as a fourth-grader in 1968, as the only Black Cub Scout in a troop marching from Lexington to Concord, Massachusetts, to commemorate Paul Revere’s “Midnight Ride.”

Along the route, Davis was pelted with rocks, cans and other debris. Scout leaders shielded him and ferried him to safety but wouldn’t explain what was happening. He thought the angry White spectators were anti-Cub Scout, he said, chuckling at his naivete.

As his parents tended to his wounds, they dispelled the illusion, explaining racism. It was hard to believe for an embassy brat who got along swimmingly with his White friends in Massachusetts, just as he’d gotten along with the Italian, Nigerian and Japanese kids at the schools abroad, he said.

Weeks later, while watching “Bewitched,” the show was interrupted with news of MLK’s assassination. He’d never heard of the man and went to his father’s study to report what had happened. It was the first time he saw his dad cry.

Thus began a fascination. Davis studied MLK’s legacy and wrote letters to Coretta Scott King and James Earl Ray — and began seeking answers to questions raised on that parade route.

“I had formed a question in my mind at the age of 10, which was: How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” he said. “Who better to ask that question of than someone who would go so far as to join an organization that has well over a 100-year history of practicing hating people?”

Davis met his first Klansman in 1983 at a gig in Frederick, Maryland, and decided to become the first Black author to write a book about the Klan. Since 1991, Davis estimates, conversing with adversaries has helped convince about 60 Klansmen to hand over their robes and hoods, while others have given him patches, flags, armbands, belt buckles, “all kinds of crap.”

Davis never sought to convert anyone. He merely wanted answers, he said, but he saw bigots’ tenors change when he broke down their fear and ignorance by demonstrating he understood that, like anyone, they wanted to be loved, respected, heard, treated fairly and to see their families thrive.

“A leopard does not change its spots. So, why would I think a Klansman would change his robe and hood? … All I wanted to know is why,” he said. “The more we talked, the more I learned and the more they were learning, which I didn’t realize, either. A takeaway from that was — and still is — that while you are actively learning about someone else, at the same time you are passively teaching about yourself.”

A former neo-Nazi swaps sides

One of those Davis approached was Jeff Schoep, 48, who led the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement from 1994 to 2019. Schoep now runs Beyond Barriers USA, a nonprofit aiming to stamp out extremism. Schoep credits Davis and filmmaker Deeyah Khan with spurring him to re-examine his hatred.

Schoep always viewed his bigotry as noble — he was defending “his” people and “White civil rights” — but speaking with Khan for her documentary, “White Right: Meeting the Enemy,” Schoep grew uncomfortable as the Muslim filmmaker recounted slurs she’d faced growing up in Norway with an Afghan mother and Pakistani father. She had a “vibrant energy,” and he could feel her pain, Schoep recalled.

Davis, Schoep said, opened their conversation with music and jokes. After they’d built a rapport, Davis told Schoep the Cub Scout story, leading the then-neo-Nazi to think, “What if someone had done that to one of my children, for any reason?”

Davis’ tack is rooted in two Kingian principles: seeking understanding and defeating evil, not people. It was effective, Schoep explained, because “as far as being in the movement, no one ever leaves that life by getting punched in the face.”

MLK had a dream that one day “on the red hills of Georgia” the sons of slaves and slave owners would sit down together. Davis believes he’s doing his part, he said.

“I am the descendant of slaves and I, as a Black man, am sitting down with the descendants of slave owners, who come in the form of modern-day White supremacists, ‘at the table of brotherhood,'” he said.

Davis has limits, though. While he resists violence, he has hospitalized Klansmen who attacked him, he said. Asked why he departed from the principles, he said he simply didn’t want to be injured. As great as King was, he wasn’t walking into Klan rallies, Davis noted.

How to remain peaceful amid violence?

Johnetta Elzie, too, has doubts. The Missouri native cut her teeth in activism after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown not far from her childhood home. She was a prominent figure in Baltimore’s Freddie Gray protests the following year.

The organizer and writer demonstrates acumen in several of King’s steps to nonviolence — including information gathering, education, personal commitment and direct action — but when people ask about fits of violence among protesters, she replies: “Is that a realistic question?”

In Ferguson and Baltimore, there were phalanxes of police with batons and shields, pointing automatic weapons at women, journalists and young people, Elzie said. They were backed by soldiers and armored vehicles (and in Ferguson, by armed Oath Keepers, members of which now stand charged in the January 6 insurrection).

“What’s the threshold of violence, and how do you look at Black people doing anything in response to state violence and cry about that, but the state violence itself doesn’t bother you?” she asked. “Are you offended by this? Because if so, we can have a conversation. If not, we have nothing to talk about.”

People have been skeptical of nonviolence since MLK’s day — look no further than Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X — and while Elzie knows older activists and clergy who follow that path, she doesn’t encounter many people “growing up in the current climate” inclined to do the same.

Ditch the binaries, she said. There’s space between the poles to “disagree on points and ways of living,” she said.

“I personally am not going out to be violent with other people, but I’m also not about to purposely go out of my way to condemn anyone on my side for choosing to do so in reaction to state violence,” she said. “Key word: reaction.”

Bernice King understands the mentality, and she knows there are people — even police — “hellbent” on destroying African Americans, but, she points out, even the conscience of the most virulent racist “can be awakened.”

“Part of the biggest challenge,” she said, “is it’s hard to take on law enforcement in the streets. It’s a losing battle. It just is.”

She concurs, however, the media and others need to call out state violence with the same vigor they employ decrying reactions to violence, she said.

“That’s what daddy called out. He said, ‘I can’t condemn those rioting and not at the same time condemn my very nation, who’s the greatest purveyor of violence,'” she said.

Protests today feel disconnected, Bernice King said, more reactionary than proactive. When Rosa Parks was arrested, protesters didn’t target Alabama’s capital; they boycotted the bus system enforcing segregation.

Further, as the Nonviolence365 course teaches, campaigns fed off each other. Failures in 1961’s Albany Movement in Georgia informed successes in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, which led to greater victories, including the Civil Rights Act of 1968, following Operation Breadbasket and the Chicago Freedom Movement.

A Kingian act of resistance

The Rev. Barber embraces the Kingian principle that unearned suffering can be redemptive.

One must be willing to suffer for the cause. Barber experiences intense back pain, he said, but “people suffering without a living wage — they hurt worse than I do.”

Barber’s led many marches and been arrested at least 15 times. He’s willing to be taken into custody again, he said, during the June 18 Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls.

Likening the march to King’s Birmingham campaign in 1963, Barber said people are ready to fill the jails to make their point. About 1,000 protesters were arrested in Birmingham, including King, who spent eight days in jail.

“What you’re saying is: Whatever is going on is so bad that it’s worth engaging in, quote on quote, breaking the law because policies are being used to break people’s lives,” he said. “If putting your body on the line will dramatize how bad it is and get attention to that matter, then you’re willing to do that because we’re not an insurrection. We’re a resurrection — a resurrection of morals.”

Where MLK spoke of the “triple evils” of racism, economic exploitation and militarism, Barber has expanded that to the “interlocking injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism and white supremacy.”

That 140 million people — more than 40% of Americans — are poor or draw low incomes is unacceptable in a country so wealthy, he said. March organizers are putting people of all backgrounds in front of cameras to demonstrate who’s being impacted.

This isn’t about race. After the Selma to Montgomery marches, Barber said, King did not proclaim a victory for Black people.

“He actually said that the systems of segregation and voter suppression were stratagems … that were used by the Southern aristocracy to keep the masses of poor Negro voters and White voters from coming together and forming a political power base that could shift the economic architecture of the country,” Barber said. “Too often today, our leaders are not talking like that.”

There’s too much bifurcation, he said. MLK presented the links between evils. Today, King would’ve connected rising poverty with bills aimed at suppressing votes after an election boasting record turnout, Barber suspects.

It’s unsurprising that Barber and Bernice King — both people of the cloth — say the nonviolent mindset requires faith, but even those who are more spiritual than religious (or agnostic or atheist) must believe in the possibility of better days.

Bernice King alluded to John Lewis, who did not know, as a 25-year-old organizer in Selma, he’d have his skull cracked and face death threats before becoming a 17-term congressman. He didn’t know many of the voting rights for which he fought would be snatched away by the US Supreme Court — or that after his death, fellow legislators would work to restore those rights in his name. Still, he fought for most of his 80 years.

“It’s also knowing you are part of a force that will ultimately bring about transformation. You have to believe that. If you don’t enter into it with that mindset, then you’re always going to be in a never-ending cycle of violence and chaos,” Bernice King said. “Are you really committed to this outcome to the point that even if you don’t see it in your lifetime — even as my father didn’t see some of these things in his lifetime — it’s OK as long as I know what I’m doing is going to lead to an outcome for another generation?”

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