Commentary: MLK and Nonviolent Change

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Sunday Afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum, WNYC will be sponsoring an event called Looking for Martin: are Dr. King and His Dream still Relevant? WNYC’s Brian Lehrer will be one of the participants, and has these thoughts about one aspect of Dr. King’s legacy.

BRIAN LEHRER: If I were to say to you that the solution to the problems in Iraq is love, you’d probably write me off as quaint, irrelevant and hopelessly naive. But guess who said exactly that about the civil rights movement? Of course, it was Martin Luther King. Consider this passage from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on December 10th, 1964.

KING: ....[M]an must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. The tortuous road which has led from Montgomery, Alabama, to Oslo bears witness to this truth. This is a road over which millions of Negroes are traveling to find a new sense of dignity.

LEHRER: Remember, the tortuous road that Dr. King referred to included 400 years of slavery, state-sanctioned murder, and countless other forms violent oppression. Yet Dr. King, on his quest for human rights, wound up with love as the foundation of his movement. And it worked.

The civil rights movement was a long time ago, and might even seem like a time of innocence despite the historic injustices it was trying to change. But it wasn’t just the domestic civil rights movement to which King applied his ideas. Again to his Nobel Peace Prize address.

KING: I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

LEHRER: Unconditional love is hard enough to ask for from your parents, never mind Bush and Sadr and Ahmidenijad, or at that time, Johnson and the Viet Cong. But King framed love as strength, not weakness. And he framed nonviolence as power, not passivity.

KING: Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.

LEHRER: We are a long way from a creative psalm of brotherhood as we confront death squads and troop surges. But that’s all the more reason to take this important holiday seriously and turn to Dr. King not just for moral inspiration but for a redefinition of the practical.

So for Martin Luther King Day this year, I’m not just asking, wasn’t he a great man? I’m asking “Where are the leaders of today who are willing to mobilize for forceful nonviolent change? Where are the think tanks devoted to implementing King-style tactics in international diplomacy?” They are nowhere. But before you write me off as irrelevant and quaint, think about the results of the last four years of war. Maybe it’s the leaders we have who are hopelessly naive.