The Practical Wisdom of Nonviolence in Black Activism

When a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was surprisingly voted spokesperson of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was no way he could have foreseen the immeasurable impact his actions would have not only in Montgomery, but across the South, the nation, and the world. The boycott was the first organized mass demonstration of what would eventually become the nationwide Civil Rights Movement, and as the movement grew in notoriety and passion, so too did its young leader, the recently installed pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The struggle in Montgomery was revolutionary, resulting in many “firsts”. Chief among them was the first time a Gandhi-inspired nonviolent resistance was successfully utilized in a Black American context. It would not, however, be the last. 

Through a litany of demonstrations in the South protesting the shamefully racist effects of Jim Crow, Dr. King built upon his earlier readings of Gandhi and other philosophers, propagating nonviolence as a morally sound philosophy, and demonstrating its practical effectiveness repeatedly. His efforts were met with massive resistance from white political leaders and citizens, often violent resistance. In fact, in the early days of the boycott, King’s home was bombed by white supremacists with his wife and seven-week-old daughter inside. Although the King family was unharmed, a crowd of 300 Black people surrounded his home, with many ready to retaliate for the attack. Mirroring what would become the spirit of the struggle, King told the crowd, “Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword… We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies.” 

Dr. King’s Nonviolent Philosophy

Love? A man’s home is bombed, his wife and daughter placed in mortal danger, and his response is to love those who perpetrated the bombing? One must know what Dr. King meant when he said “love” to fully understand his commitment to nonviolence. In an article outlining the moral aspects of nonviolent activism, King wrote, “In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.” So what type of love was King referring to when he urged peace in Montgomery? Agape love, taken from a Greek word in the New Testament that King explains, entails“nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” Dr. King never advocated victims of racism to “senselessly” admire their oppressors, but simply to empathize with the ignorance and hate that fueled their actions. As he put it, “Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.” 

This Christian notion of love, combined with the nonviolent noncooperation championed by Gandhi, formed Dr. King’s non-violent philosophy/theology. This doctrine’s implementation is directly responsible for many of the movement’s victories: the desegregation of city buses in Montgomery, continued attention on the movement due to demonstrations in Birmingham, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was so successful and influential that the doctrine outlived the movement it was constructed for and has since been co-opted by various socio-political movements. Nevertheless, nonviolence had its detractors. The best known of which was Malcolm X; but even members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the youth arm of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), did not all agree with his nonviolent doctrine. 

Many present activists have picked up on this same dissent, and have argued it is unfair to expect Black people to be nonviolent in their resistance to the daily physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic violence. Author and activist Kimberly Jones summarized the feelings of those who accept a refusal to rely on nonviolence alone in a passionate speech given during the 2020 widespread protests for racial equality, “If the social contract [between Black people and the state] is broken, then why the fuck do I give a shit about burning down the Pro Football Hall of Fame, about burning down a fucking Target. You broke the contract when you killed us in the streets and didn’t give a fuck… As far as I’m concerned, they could burn this bitch to the ground, and it still wouldn’t be enough. And they are lucky: that what Black people are looking for is equality, and not revenge.”

Jones is absolutely correct. Malcolm X was also correct when he said, “We should be peaceful, law-abiding—but the time has come for the American Negro to fight back in self-defense whenever and wherever he is being unjustly and unlawfully attacked.” The decision to use violent or nonviolent means of resistance belongs solely to the victims of oppression, not the perpetrators of it. If the victims of oppression find they would rather display the grace and mercy inherent in nonviolent noncooperation than retaliate in force, that’s their prerogative, but they should never be expected or pressured to be nonviolent by the same state that inflicts violence upon them. 

This objection to nonviolent resistance is fair, but proponents of violent stratagems to ignite social change and those who believe that people should be able to vent their frustrations with institutional racism violently and destructively, ignore two important things. First, what Black activism is supposed to achieve and what it must do to achieve it. Second, the practical reasons Black activism must be nonviolent to be successful. 

We Still Need Black Activism 

Some believe that Black activism is no longer a necessity in the United States. But as long as systemic racism exists: both in the form of the aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow, and the current effects of systems still operating, Black activism will be necessary to pursue two goals: addressing the damaging effects of systemic racism and dismantling those racist systems. 

To achieve these goals, Black activists are forced to convince the “white moderate” to support their causes. This is due to both the nature of representative democracy in which white people are the majority and the prolonged, systematic economic abuse of Black people that leaves them with only the smallest fraction of wealth compared to their white counterparts. Activists are put in the unenviable position of convincing the white moderate to apply pressure on their elected officials if they desire any real possibility of political gains. Worse, they are compelled to convince them to open their pockets and bankroll the activists’ efforts. 

This would not be an issue if the white moderate was not so tenuous in their commitment to racial equality. Dr. King was so disillusioned with them, he wrote this in a letter from jail that responded to criticism of his demonstrations from white clergy, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride towards freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councils or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice.” The white moderate includes those who claim to understand and empathize with Black plight but urge patience and passivity to the victims of it, hoping the problems will inevitably be solved. King claimed that their, “lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Unfortunately, the white moderate is the key to achieving tangible socio-political gains and the primary source of funding for those and other efforts. Even the smallest indication of violence scares them away. Their vacillations are part of the reason Black activism must be nonviolent to be successful.

The Media and the White Moderate’s Timidity

News media, regardless of format, style, and sometimes credibility, is largely responsible for shaping the perception of issues important to the American public. When Black activism is involved, the media’s already outsized influence on public opinion grows. The tone, frequency, and narrative employed in their coverage of Black activism can literally make or break the movement in question. The media is a double-edged sword to Black movements. On one hand, activists need the media to catch the attention of the public so that they can dramatize the conditions that drove them to demonstrate and engender support. So much so that former congressman John Lewis was driven to say, “The Civil Rights Movement without television, would’ve been like a bird without wings.” On the other hand, the media can quickly flip public opinion–specifically, that of the white moderate–against Black activists by producing negative coverage, especially coverage focused on violence, rioting, and looting. 

Unsurprisingly, the media mishandles this grave responsibility often. Research has shown the media to regularly frame protest coverage through the “protest paradigm”, a framework of coverage where “the press contributes to the political status quo by reinforcing whatever the government thinks.” In practice, this would look like the media portraying protests as public nuisances, ignoring the demands of protestors while still covering protests, using the passive voice to describe the actions of state actors while using the active voice to describe the actions of protestors, and focusing on instances of violence without contextualizing or quantifying them. 

Although there has been only minimal research conducted on this subject, the media’s ill-treatment of Black activists is common knowledge to them and anyone who watches coverage of a protest. It is what inspired Malcolm X to say, “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” With the media always itching to tell the bad story about the Black activist, and the white moderate willing to listen, little room for error is available to the activist, and zero room for violence. 

Violence Has No End Goal Nor Direction 

In addition to the media hyper-fixating on acts of violence, there are more reasons violence does not work for Black activists. 

What would be the end goal of Black activism that employed violence as a tactic? Could progress and eventual reconciliation be achieved by those who espouse violence or violent self-defense as a strategy? Let history answer. Nat Turner was hanged after he lead a slave revolt, and Southerners retaliated by killing 200 Black people and passing even more oppressive legislation regarding the treatment of slaves. Fred Hampton, chairman of the Black Panther Party, was murdered in his sleep by the Chicago Police Department, in conjunction with the F.B.I., and the images of armed Black Panthers in the California statehouse moved then-governor Ronald Reagan and even the N.R.A. to support gun control laws. Thousands of largely forgotten Black insurrections following the end of the Civil Rights Movement were violently quelled by federal troops, increasingly militarized police departments, and white vigilantes. 

The majority-white power structure was, is, and will always be afraid of Black violence. Sadly, they have the power to back that fear with their own violence. No matter how many guns Black people own, no matter how much anxiety Black violent demonstrations can produce within American leadership, they possess highly organized, highly efficient, highly vicious means of violence that would make even the most well-armed Black Panther seem impotent. We cannot know if violent strategies can achieve the ends of racial equality or Black power because, throughout American history, those who utilized the strategies were expeditiously eliminated. 

Unless the goal of Black activism becomes revolution (actual regime change, not any other definition of the word), violence is useless to it, as it gives the state social permission to halt its use by any means necessary. And the goal of Black activism should not be revolution, because victory would be impossible. 

Violence as an Outlet for Frustrations?  

Some who support violence in Black activism do not view it as conducive to achieving the end goals, but still accept it because it can be used as an outlet to vent frustrations against racism and its effects. This is especially true of violence inflicted upon property, instead of humans. But is the point of activism to be cathartic? No, while working towards a future with more racial equality can certainly be a cathartic experience, venting frustrations for the sake of venting should not be anyone’s aim. This is especially true because violent venting hurts the movement much more than it helps it. 

The best way to release institutional frustrations would be to achieve progress that either dismantles those institutions or addresses the effects of those institutions, but that prospect becomes less and less likely every time the white moderate sees a corner store on fire. Black activism should focus on long-term gains, not short-term satisfaction. 

This article is not a condemnation of any Black activist, regardless of their opinion on the violence/nonviolence question. This is simply an argument for the nonviolent stance that considers the morality and the practical wisdom of that doctrine, in light of Black American history, the history of Black activism, and the current socio-political context of Black people. If that context were to change, it is possible that nonviolence could fade as the most effective option, but that has not happened, and likely will not. Nonviolence remains the most moral means of affecting social change, but if that is not enough to convince a person, it is also the most practical, most effective way to help Black people.

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