We Shall Overcome: Peter Ling Analyses Martin Luther King's Involvement with Non-Violent Protest in the USA. (Profiles in Power)

By Ling, Peter | History Review, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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We Shall Overcome: Peter Ling Analyses Martin Luther King's Involvement with Non-Violent Protest in the USA. (Profiles in Power)


Ling, Peter, History Review


`We Shall Overcome' was the anthem of the southern civil rights movement in the United States, and it captured its religious idealism. Almost as soon as the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 catapulted him to fame, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was a major symbol of, and spokesman for, this aspect of the movement because of his championing of the philosophy and tactics of non-violence. Accordingly, this article seeks to examine the role and practice of non-violence over the course of King's career, which was tragically cut short by his assassination on 4 April 1968.

Non-violence and King

The classic non-violent demonstrations of 1960 and 1961--the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides on interstate buses--were not the work of Martin Luther King. The protesters were student activists, most of whom were not associated with King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This reminds us that the movement was much more than King, and that non-violence covered a wide variety of tactics, besides the marches and rallies that are most closely identified with King himself.

In 1960 the press sometimes referred to non-violence as `passive resistance', and the sight of people not striking back, when attacked, tended to underline that word `passive'. It was this perception of non-violence that made King's approach so controversial inside the African American community. Figures such as Malcolm X vilified King for what they regarded as a demeaning denial of the basic human right to self-defence. King's rejection of violence may have won him praise among white liberals and the mainstream media, but Malcolm's advice that `If the Man puts a hand on you--send him to the cemetery', was warmly applauded by appreciative black audiences. The violent resolution of conflict was deeply embedded in American tradition, and African Americans generally shared the American expectation that a man of courage should fight back and that, by so doing, would win his opponent's respect.

The sit-in wave of 1960 represented a real watershed in terms of the use of non-violence. The Montgomery Bus Boycott certainly drew on the repertoire of non-violence in that it was an act of non-cooperation, but it was essentially a strategic withdrawal. In contrast, the sit-in was an act of engagement: you put yourself in harm's way. This helps to explain why many civil rights activists in 1960 disapproved of the term `passive resistance' and preferred to speak of `non-violent direct action'. The key elements were the decision to act (rather than merely to accept), and the insistence that action should be directed at the instances or sites of oppression, e.g. segregated lunch counters. The rejected alternative here was not just violence but the older generation's tactics of lobbying and lawsuits, which had dominated the formal politics of resistance under the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Civil rights groups had used non-violent direct action tactics before 1960, but after the widespread demonstrations of that year non-violent demonstrations clearly set the tone.

Economic Coercion

What the bus boycotts and sit-in demonstrations had in common was a calculated use of economic pressure. Since two-thirds of bus riders in Montgomery were African American, the bus company suffered enormous losses during the boycott and became more eager to settle the dispute than were the city's white politicians. Similarly, the sit-ins were often accompanied by a formal boycott of the downtown stores that refused to desegregate their lunch counters, including national boycotts in the case of chains stores such as Woolworth's, and by a sometimes much larger decline in general business as shoppers avoided publicised `troublespots'. Such economic pressure was not a function of non-violence as a philosophy, however, and it is worth pointing out that white segregationists also used economic intimidation as their principal means of disciplining anyone, black or white, who questioned the racial status quo.

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