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Martin Luther King's Philosophy on Nonviolent Resistance

The Power of Nonviolent Resistance

By Jessica McElrath,

Martin Luther King being arrested and taken to a paddy wagon for his participation in a desegregation march during the campaign in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

Courtesy the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, LC-USZ62-120213.

During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. captured the attention of the nation with his philosophy and commitment to the method of nonviolent resistance. According to Dr. King, this was the only solution that could cure society’s evil and create a just society. As King emerged as a leader in the civil rights movement, he put his belief into action and proved that this was an effective method to combat racial segregation.

King Studies Nonviolent Resistance

Prior to becoming a civil rights leader, King entered a theological seminary in 1948 where he began to concentrate on discovering a solution to end social ills. He came to the conclusion that the while the power of love was a compelling force when applied to individual conflicts, it could not resolve social problems. He believed the philosophy of "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" applied only to conflicts between individuals and not racial groups or nations.

While at the seminary, King also read about Gandhi and his teachings. King was struck by the concept of satyagraha, which means truth-force or love-force. He realized that "the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”(1) King, however, was still not convinced that nonviolent resistance was a viable method in the United States. His acceptance of nonviolence would come years later during his involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott. It was at this time that King's earlier intellectual realization about the power of love was put into action. As nonviolent resistance became the force behind the boycott movement, his concerns were clarified. He recognized that nonviolent resistance was a powerful solution, and he committed himself to this method of action.

Nonviolent Resistance is Not Cowardly

King believed that there were six important points about nonviolent resistance. First, he argued that even though nonviolence may be perceived as cowardly, it was not. In fact, it was a method that did resist. According to King, a nonviolent protester was as passionate as a violent protester. Despite not being physically aggressive, "his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken.”(2)

Nonviolent Resistance Awakens Moral Shame

Second, the point of nonviolent resistance is not to humiliate the opponent, but instead to gain his friendship and understanding. Further, the use of boycotts and methods of non-cooperation, were the "means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent.”(3) The result was redemption and reconciliation instead of the bitterness and chaos that came from violent resistance.

Nonviolent Resistance is a Battle Against Evil

The third point King advanced was that the battle was against the forces of evil and not individuals. Tension was not between the races, but was "between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory not merely for fifty thousand Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light.”(4) Thus, tension only existed between good and evil and not between people.

Nonviolent Resistance Requires Suffering

Fourth, nonviolent resistance required the willingness to suffer. One must accept violence without retaliating with violence and must go to jail if necessary. Accordingly, the end was more important than safety, and retaliatory violence would distract from the main fight. King believed that by accepting suffering, it led to "tremendous educational and transforming possibilities" and would be a powerful tool in changing the minds of the opponents.(5)

The Nonviolent Resister is on the Side of Justice

King's fifth point about nonviolent resistance was that the "universe was on the side of justice." Accordingly, people have a "cosmic companionship" with God who is on the side of truth. Therefore, the activist has faith that justice will occur in the future.

(1) King Jr., Martin Luther, "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” The Christian Century 77 (13 April 1960), pp. 439-41.
(2) King Jr., Martin Luther, "Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” The Christian Century 74 (6 February 1957), pp. 165-67.
(3) "Nonviolence and Racial Justice."
(4) "Nonviolence and Racial Justice."
(5) King Jr., Martin Luther, "An Experiment in Love.” Jubilee, September 1958, pp. 11ff.


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