Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Myth of Dr. King’s Absolute Nonviolence

What’s up rhetoric nerds? Welcome back to RhetoricLee Speaking, a podcast committed to banishing banality one speech at a time.

I am your hostess with the mostess, rhetoric professor Lee Pierce, she/they pronouns, loather of cliches and lover of a good old, finger to the man, take to the streets, PROTEST…with a capital P. Not to be confused with the recent protests at the Capitol. Yes, I called them protests. We will get into that later. 

I love a lot of things about rhetoric–studying it and going out and doing it–but protest rhetoric is among my favorites. And one thing I’ve noticed from studying dozens of protests throughout history is that speech is important in changing the dynamics of power but it’s not more important than violence.

Violence and speech. Those are the engines of change. And money but the oppressed never have money. That’s why they need violence and speech–they’re open access resources.

  • French Revolution. Bloody.
  • Haitian Revolution. So bloody.
  • End of Apartheid. Nelson Mandela wins the Nobel Peace Prize for using speech to fight for justice….after a lot of bloody.
  • Voting Rights for Black Men in 1870. Well…that was five years after the Civil War so you tell me. Also, voting rights on paper were not voting rights in practice
  • 1920 Voting Rights for Women. Not very bloody at all but that’s probably because it was a giant red herring so that states could continue to effectively block non-white men and women from voting. Also can you imagine how much hypocrisy would be required to forcibly detain women in public? It just wasn’t going to work. That will be important to remember for later. 

It always raises the question: is true progressive social change possible without violence? The truth is I don’t know. I like to think so but I’m doubtful. People in power do not give up power out of the goodness of their hearts. And the history of the powerful is WAY more bloody than every revolution combined. 

Which is why it really butters my muffins when the first thing people say when civil rights protests get a little violent–and by historical standards we’re talking “a little”–is “remember that Dr. Martin Luther King preached non-violence” everyone.

And remember the protests at the Capitol weren’t civil rights protests so bracket those for a moment.

I saw so many white conservatives post MLK quotes about nonviolence during the summer Black Lives Matter protests that you would have thought it was Black history month. 

This is a cliche that needs rectifying. And between the shit at the Capitol last week and it being Dr. King’s holiday on January 18, I thought it about as good a time as any.

Now, you may be saying, “but the BLM protests weren’t violent. That was all Antifa.” Here’s the thing; I don’t really care. Non-violence is not, in and of itself, a virtue. Obviously we want to know, as much as possible, if the violence is manufactured. But also 7 months and 23ish people killed, including officers, many the result of trampling and not individual targeting…compare that to Black men and women killed by systemic violence over the course of 7 months…by historical standards that is insanely moderate. 

Judicious violence is the virtue–that’s the point of this episode. None of the violence at the Capitol was judicious, that’s for sure. Black Lives Matter is a different story. After you oppress an entire race of people and steal them from their homeland and eradicate their culture for hundreds of years, then leave them to be marginalized and shit out of luck as a condition of their “citizenship”–well, if you don’t make allowances for some trampling and Target looting then you are a hypocritical jackass.

So, let me explain why Dr. King would never, even in the fairest of white supremacy counter-fantasy lands, have looked at the violence of the BLM protests and advocated for non-violence. It is a claim that is not only transparently anti-Black but also betrays an inability to make logical inferences. 

To help me, I’m going to use a recent episode of The Umbrella Academy, which if you have not seen, is fabulous. It’s about a family of adopted sibling disgruntled superheroes who wind up back in 1961 on the verge of the assassination of JFK. It’s like the movie Hancock smashed together with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children except all the children are now adults and also assholes.

There is a story about Dr. King, apparently true, that during one of his Christian leadership conferences a man jumped out of the audience and started punching King repeatedly in the face. King just stood there. When King’s supporters tried to interfere, King told them to stay back. He was getting the absolute shit knocked out of him and he kept saying “‘Don’t touch him, don’t hurt him.’” It wasn’t until King was clearly in mortal peril that supporters finally intervened.

Now people love to cite this story as King’s absolutely Christian-bound commitment to non-violence. The takeaway message we get is that King championed non-violence ABOVE ALL ELSE because violence is anti-Christian. It gets equated with “turn the other cheek” from the Bible, in which no matter what violence is being brought unto you, you turn the other cheek because the worst sin is the sin of violence and everything else is kind of second tier. 

Now, King did provide some evidence for people to think that. SOME evidence. As in, less evidence than supports other interpretations. For example, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote to white clergy who wanted him to stop protesting, King writes:

[W]e need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the […] church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood.

So if that’s your only quote–and for a lot of people on social media, it is–then it looks like King is simply committed to anti-violence for the sake of anti-violence: “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”

But let’s look at the very next line from the letter. King writes:

And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions […] will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

So now things look a little different. King’s commitment to nonviolence stems not merely from a Christian conviction but also a political reality in which white people were just LOOKING for Black people to do anything that could get them squashed by the police. And in 1961 that was basically anything. Not that the standards are that much higher now, getting suffocated for trying to spend $20 of counterfeit money or, you know, being asleep in the wrong house, but in 1961 it was literally anything.

BLM opponents who espouse nonviolence as King’s ultimate goal always leave that passage out. They focus on the “excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” Because that shit is great for White people. Do hundreds of years of violence, the most abhorrent kinds of systematic violence you can think of, but not have to deal with any fallout because the greatest good is not being violent. It’s a genius tautology. And the ability to credit it to King makes it not only legitimate, but downright fucking emancipatory.

Except that it totally ignores the context in which King preached nonviolence. King preached non-violence IN THE FACE OF VIOLENCE, not non-violence as an absolute good. 

I mean think about it. Here’s Dr. King, about to be beaten to death, and he couldn’t, you know, preach nonviolence and also ask his supporters to maybe get this guy off him? He couldn’t maybe bob and weave, put this guy in a sleeper hold, and just take him out of commission for a few minutes?

It is really insulting to think that a person as clever and creative–and also rampantly misogynistic, let’s be fair–as Martin Luther King Jr couldn’t look at a man punching him in the face and think, “well, I do preach nonviolence so, uh, guess I just gotta stand here.”

King understood that it is not the strategy itself that does the work. Nonviolence, violence, it’s all just strategy. What matters is what you do with the strategy. And the aim of King’s nonviolence wasn’t the nonviolence, it was the amplifying and highlighting of the violence. 

Standing there and getting punched wasn’t the accomplishment. The accomplishment was that King’s nonviolence amplified and put on display the violence being done to him. It also showed his supporters how committed they have to be because that level of commitment is what King believed would change the tides.

Maybe sensibilities have changed, that’s a question for another time, but at least in the 1960s there was still the issue of decorum. And white violence had to be able to be hidden, justified, excused…even the KKK still wore hoods. King’s goal was to put that shit on display and shove it in white people’s faces so that there was no excuse to hide behind. Remember what I said about womens’ suffrage being one of the only nonviolent revolutions in U.S. history? Much of that came down to decorum. 

But violence against Black people, including Black women, didn’t evoke the same kind of cringe. 

King’s nonviolence wasn’t Gandhi’s nonviolence wasn’t Black Lives Matter’s nonviolence. It was very specific to his time and rhetorical situation in which police were looking for ANY reason to beat, brutalize, and murder Black protestors and any white person stupid enough to side with the enemy.

The nonviolence, in the end, wasn’t the strategy. Nonviolence was a piece of the strategy, which was to amplify and lay bare the violence and rage and hatred of white America that broke with their image as the civilized ones. Hard to keep up an ideology of Black barbarism/white civility when footage of white cops ripping off the skin of children with firehouses is blasting across your television.

I didn’t want to do too much quoting in this episode but I love this passage from Alexander Livingston in Jacobin Magazine:

When ruling elites call for peace, they are demanding docility. When they cynically cite decontextualized Martin Luther King Jr quotes and invoke the rights of “peaceful protesters” while denouncing actually existing protests, they announce that no effective protest will ever be peaceful enough to meet their approval. Ruling elites, pundits, and police use the rhetoric of nonviolence to discipline protesters and shift responsibility for state violence onto its victims.

Now don’t get me wrong. King’s legacy can be interpreted differently. There are a lot of “experts” on King that disagree with me. But I will tell you this; if you find an expert arguing the opposite of me, I’d look at whose funding them. No doubt, I am as bleeding heart social liberal as they come. But I’m a rhetorician first. And nobody who really understands rhetoric could read King as a champion of absolute nonviolence absolutely. 

In fact, I’m such a rhetorician-first-Liberal-second that when Joe Biden said “don’t label the people that swarmed the Capitol as protestors” I was like aaannnnhhhh….I don’t know about that.” 

As a rhetorician, I believe they are protestors. I also believe it feels gross to use the same word to describe the Capitol events that we use to describe suffragette parades, the Montgomery boycott, Stonewall, and Black Lives Matter. But let us not forget that the participants in those events were also described as rioters, mobs, and terrorists.

The word “protest” shares with words such as testify and testimony the Latin root “testis” or “testari,” which means “to bear witness.” It also contains the Latin prefix “pro,” meaning “in public.” A protestor, therefore, is one who witnesses the truth of the moment and swears to it in a public forum. In its earliest modern usages in Middle English, protest functions as a kind of vow or “solemn declaration.” In the mid-1700s, it began to mean more specifically a “statement of disapproval” or “expression of dissent.”

Their protest was privileged, violent, reactionary, anti-democratic, regressive, mob behavior but it was an organic expression of dissent. Unlike the Tea Party “protests” of the first Obama administration that were funded by big conservative money like the Koch foundation and were largely manufactured dissent, the Capitol dissent was, unfortunately, an independent reaction in the sense nobody paid for it. It sucked and I hate it and I wish nobody felt the way that they did. But just because I don’t like how or what they protested doesn’t mean they weren’t protesting.

And I know you disagree with me. And that’s fine. At the very least, hopefully I’ve illustrated that you can at least trust me to form my snowflake-ass opinions through critical thinking and not party talking points. Because my interpretation of Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolence isn’t liberal propaganda; it’s the most logical interpretation to draw from tens of thousands of pages of research and, you know, the words that came out of Dr. King’s own mouth.

Unfortunately, my interpretation is not supported by pop culture because it isn’t as “live laugh laugh” or conveniently fit into Instagram squares. Although at least some get closer than others.

Let’s look at a scene from the Netflix show The Umbrella Academy. Here’s what you need to know: Allison is a Black woman in 2019 who time-travels back to the late 1950s, marries a Black man, and, in 1961, is helping to organize a civil rights protest in Dallas Texas. She’s hoping to cause enough of a stir to gain national media coverage of the protest before JFK’s arrival in 5 days.

Take note of what Allison’s husband says: the protest has to be perfect. There is no room for error. No violence, not even any disrespect. No matter what they do to us; honor and dignity at all times. 

It’s easy to think this is just more “we have to be the better people” dogma. But then the white landlord comes to the door and, just to stir up some shit, purposefully shoves his foot in the door as Allison’s husband is closing it. Now, because of the way the laws worked, Allison’s husband has now committed assault.

Remember the husband’s warning: “No matter what they do to us.” His advice wasn’t about turning the other cheek. In fact, kudos to the show for not capitalizing on the watered-down nonviolence myth of MLK. Because the point isn’t nonviolence IT IS NONVIOLENCE TO DRAW ATTENTION TO DISPROPORTIONATE VIOLENCE.

But all of that only works if you live in an age in which violence is a way of life against you. That’s where Allison comes in. She grew up in the 2000s. Now, no one is saying that Black people aren’t targets of violence in 2019. They are. For sure. But the way in which institutional violence can manifest itself has changed in 60 years. She has a different sense of her relationship to the law in 2019 than she would have had in 1961. 

So when the white landowner sets them up and goes to swing on Allison’s husband, she swings right back. Because in her brain–and let’s keep in mind that in 2019 she’s also a rich celebrity–she will have at least some guarantee of due process under the law.

But her husband’s brain in 1961 knows that any provocation of violence, righteous or justified or otherwise, will end the fight before it begins. So when he says to her, “so much for honor and dignity,” he’s not criticizing her for violence; he’s concerned because she’s not demonstrating the principle of nonviolence as a means of provoking disproportionate violence from white hegemony. 

Allison’s husband can’t understand Allison’s behavior. Just as King could never have looked at the BLM protests and espoused a doctrine of ultimate nonviolence. The reason is simple: King couldn’t have imagined a world in which Black protestors could have even gotten that far without being brutally repressed. 

In other words, he could have never imagined a civil rights protest without the guarantee of the disproportionate use violence that makes nonviolence an effective protest strategy. Now, he could have imagined all of the video footage of police brutalizing Black people, for sure. In fact, one of the things that made the video of George Floyd’s killing so powerful, was precisely that the use of violence, both in duration and force, was so extremely disproportionate. There was such a drastic gap between the violence used against him and the threat he posed that it was hard to justify or ignore. That is precisely the way that King strategized nonviolence to have worked. 

Part of what is so tricky about modern protest is that, generally speaking, institutionalized violence has learned a lesson from the civil rights movement. They keep that shit out of the public eye now. When people need mental health professionals, they get cops. What was once accomplished by mass suppression now has to be decentralized so people don’t notice it as much. Cell phone videos threw a wrench in that arrangement as well but institutional violence will find a way to adapt. Dr. King saw this coming even as he penned “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” 

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.

Curious how nobody ever cites that line: “it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.” Now that state-sponsored violence, for the most part, has dispersed to oppress on a micro level rather than brutally on display in public streets, calls for nonviolence on social media have become a moral means to preserve immoral ends. 

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, everyone. Fight the power.


View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[podcast_subscribe id="223"]