234. A few thoughts about MLK’s non-violence

I found this interview with Martin Luther King, Jr. very helpful in critically exploring his pacifism or commitment to non-violence. There are two distinctions King makes which I found particularly illuminating and thought-provoking. The first is between non-violence and organized non-violence; the second is between non-violence and anarchy. Let me briefly explore each in turn and draw some interesting consequences from them.

(1) King responds to a set of questions from the interviewer and, in doing so, reveals that it is not non-violence alone but organized non-violence that is the defensible alternative to violence and war. This makes sense since we can easily imagine unorganized acts of peaceful resistance getting completely crushed by violence and thereby being both ineffective and self-defeating. But this inclusion of organization raises questions: what kind of organization? How much organization? How can we know if there is enough of a certain kind of organization? I suppose the inclusion of organization is, on the one hand, something very sensible and yet, on other hand, something which raises a lot of questions which need to be addressed. If there is a lack of clarity about organization then we may not be justified in claiming, as King does, that organized non-violence is always an alternative to violence. Still, we have many examples of such organization – from King’s own actions of course – and these can serve as guides for others. Indeed, Gene Sharp has articulated 198 forms of non-violence which can serve as modes of organization (see them here). And it is important to think about how current technology and social media play a role in the efficacy of non-violent activism as well (for a helpful article which explores this issue go here; for a Pew Research Center analysis go here). So perhaps King’s optimism about there always being an alternative to violence is not unfounded.

(2) The interviewer tries to trap King in a contradiction by pointing out how, on the one hand, King supported President Eisenhower’s decision to order the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock Arkansas to insure the safety of the “Little Rock Nine” as they entered the school and, on the other hand, King supports non-violence. How can he be committed to both? King responds by saying he is for non-violence but not anarchy. There must, he argues, be laws and the intelligent use of police or military force can and should be employed to make sure laws are effective. This is a plausible position since a law without force behind it is an ineffectual law and therefore no law at all. But does it get King out of the interviewer’s bind? It is unclear how it does and King doesn’t elaborate further. But I think we can help him by drawing a distinction between two types of force: morally unjustified force which is violence and morally justified force which is not violent. Using force to undermine just law would be the former and using force to uphold just law would be the latter. If this distinction works, then we can say one can be committed to both non-violence and the use of force to uphold just law without contradiction. King could then be a pacifist and consistently believe in the intelligent use of force to uphold a just law which outlaws the injustice of segregation.

However, if King is prepared to accept the intelligent use of non-violent police and military force to keep law and order then couldn’t he accept a large scale military intervention which, like the 101st Airborne coming to help the Little Rock Nine, might come to the defense of another nation or large group of people in order to keep international law, defend human rights, and so on? Couldn’t we see what happened on Little Rock as a miniature just war – using morally justifiable force to come to defense of others who are being unjustly treated – whose dynamics could be expanded into a macrocosmic just war like coming to the defense of 900,000 people instead of 9?

To be sure, there are very significant differences between what happened in Arkansas and what happened in, say, WWII. Presumably in large scale warfare there is simply no way to avoid various forms of violence. And yet even the intelligent use of police or military force can, as we all know too well, lead to unavoidable violence in smaller situations as well. So could it be that his stance on non-violence is, in principle, consistent with wars that follow the parameters of just war theory as closely as possible (for an overview of just war theory, go here)? If so, we would have to rethink the received view that his non-violent pacifism is opposed to all forms of war. Perhaps it is really violent unjust war that his pacifism can logically exclude.

For my post on MLK, natural law and social justice, go here.

One reply on “234. A few thoughts about MLK’s non-violence”

  1. Nancy Goodyear on

    A well-written and thought- provoking article, Dwight. It presents an interesting argument which has me believing that MLK’s view of non- violent pacifism is not only opposed to violent unjust war but open to military intervention that would uphold laws for the safety and defense of human rights. His beliefs are timeless and still inspire. Thanks for sharing!

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