Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

The New York State Martin Luther King, Jr., Commission and Institute for Nonviolence

Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

The New York State Martin Luther King, Jr., Commission and Institute for Nonviolence

Article excerpt

The New York State Martin Luther King, Jr., Commission and Institute for Nonviolence

The current New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence and Commission (NYS-MLK) is composed of what were two separate entities. The NYS-MLK Institute for Nonviolence was conceived in 1986. It was signed into law on August 1, 1988. Nevertheless, the forerunner to the Institute was the NYS-MLK Commission. It was signed into law on August 2, 1985. This endeavor is unprecedented in a governmental context. The essential model for the New York State Institute for Nonviolence and Commission is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change which is located in Atlanta, Georgia.

Across the country states have recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday as a national and state holiday. Irrespective of these tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr., New York is the first state to attempt to bureaucratize the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. New York's attempt at the bureaucratization of the philosophy and methods of nonviolence raises new, different, and significant questions. What politics brought the NYS-MLK into existence? Although New York does not have a death penalty, the state represents an entity which possesses the "legitimate" means of violence. Does this reality render the Institute and Commission inherently null and void due to differing logical conclusions? Aside from extracting violence from its residents, can the state of New York extract violence from itself. This is Madisonian logic applied within an individual state. James Madison wrote in Federalist number 51:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control it self.(2)

Bureaucratizing King's philosophy of nonviolence magnifies this dictum. Furthermore, is there a church-state contradiction between King and the state? Is it possible to bureaucratize the essence of the Civil Rights Movement? The Civil Rights Movement began with the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955 and ended with the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968.(3) This period was characterized by sit-ins, boycotts, freedom rides, marches, and confrontation with state authorities. These actions were taken in order to persuade government to end segregation, fight against discrimination, and provide for equal justice. Moreover, these actions were performed by outsiders seeking to influence those in power.

Work has been done on the implementation of policy that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement. This work reflects on national policy that has an impact on the state and local level. In accordance with this, Hanes Walton, Jr. speaks of "the institutionalization of the Civil Rights Movement."(4) Such works, however, do not touch upon the driving philosophy or methods employed by the movement in order to solicit a response from government. Beyond an examination of a policy response, when a state entity seeks to embody the philosophy and methods of the Civil Rights Movement, implementation vis-a-vis institutionalization takes on a qualitatively different character.


The assassination of Dr. King brought to a close an essential chapter of the African American struggle for liberty and equality in the United States of America. This chapter was the Civil Rights Movement as led by Martin Luther King, Jr. After his assassination, the movement splintered into several different channels. These channels became associated with such names as Ralph David Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, John Lewis, and Coretta Scott King. The movement moved principally from protest or outsider politics to electoral or insider politics. Andrew Young, for example, in 1972 became the first Black person elected from the south since Reconstruction. He eventually became a two term mayor of Atlanta after serving as Ambassador to the United Nations during the Carter Administration. John Lewis was elected to the House of Representatives in 1986. Lewis's principal opponent in that campaign was former Georgia State Senator Julian Bond. Jesse Jackson made two credible runs for the United States presidency in 1984 and 1988. Jackson is currently championing statehood for Washington, D.C. The aforementioned leaders developed their leadership capabilities under the direction of Dr. King. Their individual pursuits embody the legacy and various interpretations of Dr. King's dream.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy was also continued in another manner. Coretta Scott King actively campaigned to have Dr. King's birthday made into a national holiday. Legislation for this purpose was introduced each year subsequent to Dr. King's assassination until his birthday was made a national holiday on November 2, 1983. The existence of the King Holiday assures reflection on King's Dream and attempted compliance with that Dream for generations to come.

Dr. King did not only influence men and women who went on to practice formal electoral politics. His influenced also extended to people in such diverse fields as sports, media, and entertainment. One such person who exemplified this influence was singer/actor Harry Belafonte. Writing in Why We Can't Wait Dr. King addressed Harry Belafonte's commitment to the movement:

We answered that we were certain to need tremendous sums of money for bail bonds. We might need public meetings to organize more support. On the spot, Harry Belafonte organized a committee, and money was pledged the same night. For the next three weeks, Belafonte, who never does anything without being totally involved, gave unlimited hours to organizing people and money. Throughout the subsequent campaign, he talked with me or my aides two or three times a day. It would be hard to overestimate the role this sensitive artist played in the success of the Birmingham crusade.(5)

In response to the federal King Holiday, Harry Belafonte focused his commitment to the movement on New York State. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission. This commission was established in order to facilitate New York State's celebration of King's birthday. Harry Belafonte's commitment was clearly acknowledged in a Five Year Report issued by the commission:

In creating a full-time, permanent commission named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte convinced the State of New York to take the unprecedented step of assuming governmental responsibility for carrying forward the spirit of the greatest moral leader of our time.(6)

With the creation of the commission, the movement, as it relates to New York, had taken on a new, different, and significant character. It had become bureaucratized. The law establishing the NYS-MLK Commission reads as follows:

A state commission is hereby created to develop, promote, coordinate and review plans and activities statewide for the annual commemoration and celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in accordance with chapter fifty of the laws of nineteen hundred eighty-five.(7)

Subsequent to its creation the Commission began to sponsor an annual arts & sciences competition to educate New York youth about the life and work of Dr. King. The Commission also sponsored and organized numerous King holiday activities.

The NYS-MLK Commission only commemorated the dream of Dr. King. It essentially had no response mechanism for what was a rising tide of violence in the state. Commemoration is a worthy yet static form of honor. It lends itself more to ceremony than to constructive involvement. Something was needed with an outreach mandate. In response to this need, the New York State Institute for Nonviolence was created. The legislation known as the New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolent Act was signed into law on August 1, 1988. The following excerpts from the legislation provide a definite statement about the expectations of the Institute:

The legislature finds and declares that an institution embodying the heritage, ideals and concerns of the people of the state of New York for peace and social justice as exemplified by the philosophy and nonviolent leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an appropriate response to the significant public need for the state to develop methods in addition to current law enforcement responses to curb the use of violence and encourage the nonviolent management of social conflict.

It is further found and declared that people throughout the state fear violence and deplore the social injustice that can give rise to violence...

It is further found and declared that many potentially destructive conflicts between different societal groups and interests have been resolved constructively and effectively at the national, state, and local level through the use of nonviolent methods...

It is further found and declared there is a need to examine the history, nature, elements and future of nonviolent processes for conflict resolution, and to develop new techniques to promote nonviolent solutions to economic, political, social, and cultural conflicts in the state...(8)

This law expresses that "significant public need" brought the NYS-MLK Institute into existence. This reflects the state of New York's concern over the sensational nature of hate crime and street crime. The economic violence that results from insider trading on Wall Street is not categorized in this aspect of crime because the link between its cause and effect is more difficult to apprehend and articulate. Moreover, to embody Kingian nonviolence, it is not enough simply to "deplore social injustice." One must actively pursue its eradication.

Dreams Within a Dream: Associates and Regional Commissions

One method by which the Institute was to branch out was through its Associates Program. The Associates Program was designed to create a "nonviolent army" throughout New York State. The emphasis was to be training. In order to initiate this program, a call was sent throughout New York for people interested in becoming associates of the Institute. Thirty three individuals assembled in Rensselaer, New York from March 29 to April 1, 1989 to become the first associates. They represented the following communities from across the state: Albany, Syracuse, Westchester County, New York City, Long Island (Nassau County), Rochester, Niagara Falls, and Buffalo. These associates were to be trained in Kingian nonviolent methods. They, in turn, were to assist the Institute in its overall training mission.

Hanes Jr. Walton argued that the institutionalization of civil rights shifted that concern from a moral to a political realm. There was no longer a higher law to appeal to for necessary change. Civil rights had become the law itself via congressional mandate, executive compliance, and judicial certification. This incorporation made civil rights more subject to political vicissitudes than moral certainty. In New York State, the bureaucratization of Kingian philosophy has had no less effect on the question of nonviolence. The nonviolent army did not materialize. Political vicissitudes caused the Institute to simply resemble any other governmental entity. On April 22, 1991 the State of New York Office of Inspector General issued its findings after investigating the Institute. The opening statement of that report reads as follows:

This review was predicated on concerns brought to the attention of the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) August, 1990 by several sources concerning management practices at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence (the Institute). The issues of concern included financial administration, contracting procedures, consultant services, travel expenses, use of credit cards and employee hiring practices.(9)

The last sentence in this statement and the name Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seem mutually exclusive. There appears to be a contradiction in motive. How is it that the philosophy of nonviolence is reduced the language of "contracting procedures, consultant services, travel expenses, use of credit cards, and employee hiring practices?

The Inspector General's Report set forth seven findings regarding the Institute's operations. A summary of those findings is as follows:

FINDING 1 - The Board of Directors has failed to adequately oversee the administrative and financial operations of the Institute.

FINDING 2 - The Institute lacks comprehensive and formalized policies and procedures to ensure proper internal controls over all aspects of its operations.

FINDING 3 - The Institute's extensive use of program consultants is not consistent with current and anticipated programmatic priorities and needs.

FINDING 4 - The Institute has no comprehensive financial record keeping and reporting system in place.

FINDING 5 - The Institute's management has not exercised prudent judgment in the expenditure of Institute funds.

FINDING 6 - Institute management has not fostered a positive working environment for staff.

FINDING 7 - Program objectives set forth in the Institute's Program Plan have not been fully implemented.(10)

The Institute's 1989 Program Plan set 16 objectives that were to have had major results by the end of 1990. The most ambitious aspect of the Plan was its sixth objective. This involved what was known as the Associates Program. This program was to represent an outreach aspect of the Institute. As conceived, it sought to embody the movement aspect of Dr. King's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The Inspector General's assessment of the Associate Program reads as follows:

In May 1990, the Institute graduated approximately 25 individuals from communities across the state as part of the Associates Program. Each Associate received 96 hours of intensive training in nonviolence theory and methodologies by Institute consultants and staff. OSIG cannot comment on content of the training as there was no formal curriculum or training goals and objectives available.

While a cadre of trained Associates exists, OSIG found no formal process for facilitating or coordinating their activities across the state. OSIG was informed by various Institute staff that the Associates Program is essentially inoperative. The need to reactivate this program was expressed by Institute officials and program consultants. Some Associates have been used on a sporadic basis to assist in Institute training activities such as the Summer Workshop on a fee for service basis.(11)

The above excerpt represents the status of the Associates Program at the time of the OSIG report. Shortly after this report was issued, the Institute went into receivership. The day to day operations were run by the State University of New York (SUNY). This is not quite as giant a leap of politics as it might appear. Dr. Bruce Johnstone, SUNY chancellor, is a member of the NYS-MLK Commission and board of directors of the Institute.

Aside from bureaucratizing the philosophy of nonviolence, the Institute seeks to bureaucratize the methods of the Civil Rights Movement. This accounts for the great deal of emphasis placed on preserving the Associates Program. The Program embodied five principal aspects (1) Intervention; (2) Mobilization; (3) Activism; (4) Organization; and (5) the promise or future prospect of civil disobedience. Even after the Institute went into receivership with SUNY, one of the immediate priorities was the re-activation of the Associates Program.

The response to the Inspector General's report prompted a serious effort to make the Associate Program operational. In order for the Institute to truly reflect the Civil Rights Movement as led by Dr. King, a viable outreach arm seemed imperative. Nevertheless, irrespective of SUNY efforts, the Associates Program proved difficult to implement. To date, it remains inoperative.

Bureaucratization of the movement remained important even into the third phase of the Institute which began with the appointment of Virgil Hodges as the new executive director. Although the movement aspect remained important, it took a different turn. Hodges emphasized regional commissions as a form of outreach to reflect the activist components of the Civil Rights Movement. With Albany serving as the center, periphery/regional commissions would be established throughout New York State in order to form a system of bridges between the Commission and local communities. In a February 4, 1992 report to the Institute the following statement was given concerning local commissions:

We are well underway with our second goal, to rehabilitate the public perception of the Institute and Commission, and pursuant to the legislative intent and mission statements, establish local commissions in all major cities. In this area, the record speaks for itself. We have established six new local commissions: Buffalo, Capitol District, Newburgh, New York City, Mt. Vernon, and Syracuse. Local commissions existed in Rochester, Central Brooklyn, Long Island and Broome County, and we will work diligently to support and assist them; thus rounding out a growing network and expanded operational and constituent base.(12)

With the formation of the regional commissions, a fundamental dilemma arose. As noted in the Essential Chronology, the Commission and Institute were unified under one Executive Director. However, each entity arose to address different concerns. The Commission came into existence to commemorate the birthday of Dr. King and preserve his memory. The Institute was established in order to promote the philosophy of nonviolence and make it applicable to violent situations across the state. The regional commission appears to exist in the commemorative mode. The question arises as to whether the local commissions will develop an institute arm or simply perform commemorative functions. More than likely, each regional commission will choose where to place its emphasis due to the fact that each entity is autonomous and governed by respective bylaws.

The Question of Inherent Contradictions

Prayer in public schools was declared unconstitutional in the 1962 Engle vs. Vitale decision. The case grew out of the New York public school system. The following is the prayer that was often recited:

Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.

The reciting of this prayer was declared unconstitutional in that it violated the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state. The First Amendment, as part of the Bill of Rights, is applied to state and local government via the Fourteenth Amendment which prohibits abridgment of civil liberties and civil rights. The First Amendment states that Congress (government) cannot establish a religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion.

The question arises as to whether promotion of the philosophy of a southern Baptist minister carries an inherent violation of the separation of church and state. The particular aspect of this question rests within the movement component of the Institute regarding training. During the initial training of the "Associates" a great deal of emphasis was placed on learning the six steps and six principles of a nonviolent campaign. The sixth principle of nonviolence reads as follows:

Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.(13)

If principle number six is taught via a workshop setting, does this violate constitutional separation of church and state? In essence, would this equate to the state of New York promoting religion? Is it possible to extract God out of King? In response to these questions, Virgil Hodges states that he does not believe that the Institute and Commission is denominationally or religiously oriented. The allusion to God in Principle Six carries no more direction than the phrase "In God We Trust" printed on U.S. currency. According to Hodges, the Institute is not promoting a particular creed. Nevertheless, he does acknowledge that King's philosophy might have a Christian and Hindu foundation. In the final analysis, Hodges sees the mission of the Institute as an agent to militate against violence in communities across the state and within state government. This includes taking a stand against capital punishment in the state of New York.(14)

The Institute published a guide and introduction to Kingian nonviolence in 1990. It was prepared by Bernard LaFayette, Jr. and David C. Jehnsen. Both men worked with Dr. King during the movement and have subsequently been retained by the Institute on a consulting basis. The manual also contains the six principles of nonviolence. In the manual, however, no reference is made to "God" in Principle Six. The emphasis is placed simply on justice. Nevertheless, the following statement, which is given in the manual to further explain Principle Six, gives evidence of a close relationship with religion:

Because specific universal values are a part of each of the worlds' great religions, that they are part of the foundation of nonviolence appeals to people across the world, the global society.(15)

Within the Leadership Manual additional evidence of religious influence can be found in Principle Five. Reference to the "Spirit" offers an additional connotation of mind-body dualism which is essential to religious faith. However, no specific reference is made to any religion.


The New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission was created in order to promote and organize events commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence grew out of the Commission. Its mandate or purpose was to seek ways to promote Dr. King's philosophy and method of nonviolence. This represented the first phase of New York's attempt to bureaucratize Kingian nonviolence. Both entities were combined under one executive directorship. This occurred in order to save the Institute from being eliminated in the face of severe fiscal mismanagement. Moreover, the new combined structure would give the Commission and Institute more legitimacy by providing more accountability. Moreover, it also represented the second and third phases of bureaucratization. The second phase was SUNY receivership. The third phase was combination.

The NYS-MLK Institute-Commission has had its greatest success in regards to the commemoration aspect. This concerns an annual King Holiday Observance held in Albany, New York and an Arts and Sciences Competition which gives primary and secondary school kids an opportunity to learn more about Dr. King and express how they feel about him as a leader. Another commemorative aspect is the Institute's resource center located in its Albany office. The resource center provides research materials for scholars and basic information for the general public.

The movement aspect of the Institute-Commission has experienced more difficulty. Early on an Associates Program was created to facilitate outreach. The chasm between the programs goal and its actual implementation proved difficult to bridge. Nonetheless, if the Institute is to truly carry forth Kingian nonviolence, the movement aspect will have to become as successful as the commemorative aspect.

Currently, regional commissions have been set up in several cities across New York State. The regional commissions were established to carry out the movement aspect. Nevertheless, they function mostly in the commemorative mode. In order to get beyond commemoration and practice movement, the Institute-Commission will have to develop a concerted program of intervention into community affairs and take a high profile approach to violent situations across the state. It will also have to mitigate against its own creator in order to address the violence of poverty. In addition to this, another problem arises. The state holds the legitimate means of violence. The Institute is a state entity. Contained in this is an overwhelming analogy that makes it extremely difficult to bureaucratize the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement.


Anthony Neal is an assistant professor in the Political Science Department at Buffalo State College.

(2). The Federalist Papers (New York: The New American Library, 1961), 322.

(3). Ralph David Abernathy, And The Wall Came Tumbling Down (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989), 132-148; Also see Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).

(4). Hanes Walton, Jr., When the Marching Stopped: The Politics of Civil Rights Regulatory Agencies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988), 2-5; Also see Charles S. Bullock III and Charles M. Lamb, eds., Implementation of Civil Rights Policy (Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co., 1984).

(5). Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait (New York: New American Library- Mentor Book, 1963), 58.

(6). New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission, A Report To The People 1990, 4.

(7). New York State Consolidated Laws Service vol. 14 (Rochester, NY: Lawyers Cooperative Publishing, 1991), 302.

(8). Ibid., pp. 298-300.

(9). State of New York Office of Inspector General, "Report Concerning New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence" File #110001,(April 22, 1991), 1.

(10). Ibid., The seven findings make up the bulk of the Inspector General's report. For in-depth detail, see page 5-49.

(11). Ibid., p. 45.

(12). "New Beginnings" Report of the Executive Director, Virgil H. Hodges, to the meeting of the Board of Directors of the New York State Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence (February 4, 1992), 3.

(13). Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1958), 106.

(14). Interview with Virgil H. Hodges, November 22, 1991.

(15). The Leaders Manual: A Structured Guide and Introduction to Kingian Nonviolence: The Philosophy and Methodology (Prepared for the New York State Martin Luther, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence by Bernard LaFayette, Jr. and David C. Jehnsen, 1990), 63.

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