“He that lives by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
BACK in 1963, during yet another time in our history when deeply divided Americans were at each others’ throats and national unity seemed impossible, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—a man whom the entire nation will celebrate on Monday—responded to fellow clergymen who criticized his “non-violent direct action” of sit-ins, marches and demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.
In “A Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King reminded his critics that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The letter should be read or re-read by all those who are deeply troubled by the violence that marred 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
Having established that there are indelible bonds between all Americans, King then explained that his decision to use “non-violent direct action” was made only after business and political leaders of “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States” had repeatedly broken promises they made to civil rights groups. It was an attempt to force them to address their deeply embedded racial prejudice and discrimination.
King championed non-violent civil disobedience against unjust laws, which he clearly defined as “a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”
Quoting St. Augustine that “an unjust law (i.e. one that is out of harmony with the moral law) is no law at all,” King goes on to explain that “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty”—even though that penalty may be incarceration. And King practiced what he preached.
But he also eloquently rebutted his critics’ claim “that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. … Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? ... Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”
According to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, there were six key principles undergirding MLK’s non-violent philosophy:
1. One does not have to become violent to resist evil;
2. Those practicing non-violent resistance should not seek to humiliate their opponents, but to seek their “friendship and understanding” instead;
3. Evil acts should be condemned, not the people committing them;
4. Suffering can be redemptive, so those opposing evil acts should be ready to suffer without seeking retaliation;
5. The non-violent resister, motivated by love for his fellow man, “not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him.”
6. Since “the universe is on the side of justice,” those practicing non-violent resistance must have a “deep faith in the future” and believe their actions will eventually bear fruit.
King used the letter as the basis for a book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” which was released in July 1964—the same month President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation in public places into law.
Despite his philosophy of non-violence and calls for brotherhood among all races, MLK was himself the victim of a violent assassination in 1968 at the age of 39.
Before his untimely death, he preached that “violence begets violence; hate begets hate; and toughness begets a greater toughness. It is all a descending spiral, and the end is destruction—for everybody.”
Now, more than half a century later, MLK’s prophetic words ring truer than ever.
The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star