As a theologian, Martin Luther King reflected often on his understanding of nonviolence. He described his own “pilgrimage to nonviolence” in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, and in subsequent books and articles. “True pacifism,” or “nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, Stride, 80). Both “morally and practically” committed to nonviolence, King believed that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom” (King, Stride, 79; Papers 5:422).
King was first introduced to the concept of nonviolence when he read Henry David Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience as a freshman at Morehouse College. Having grown up in Atlanta and witnessed segregation and racism every day, King was “fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system” (King, Stride, 73).
In 1950, as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary, King heard a talk by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. Dr. Johnson, who had recently traveled to India, spoke about the life and teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi, King later wrote, was the first person to transform Christian love into a powerful force for social change. Gandhi’s stress on love and nonviolence gave King “the method for social reform that I had been seeking” (King, Stride, 79).
While intellectually committed to nonviolence, King did not experience the power of nonviolent direct action first-hand until the start of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. During the boycott, King personally enacted Gandhian principles. With guidance from black pacifist Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, King eventually decided not to use armed bodyguards despite threats on his life, and reacted to violent experiences, such as the bombing of his home, with compassion. Through the practical experience of leading nonviolent protest, King came to understand how nonviolence could become a way of life, applicable to all situations. King called the principle of nonviolent resistance the “guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method” (Papers 5:423).
King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles. First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the “friendship and understanding” of the opponent, not to humiliate him (King, Stride, 84). Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. Fourth, those committed to nonviolence must be willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. Fifth, nonviolent resistance avoids “external physical violence” and “internal violence of spirit” as well: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him” (King, Stride, 85). The resister should be motivated by love in the sense of the Greek word agape, which means “understanding,” or “redeeming good will for all men” (King, Stride, 86). The sixth principle is that the nonviolent resister must have a “deep faith in the future,” stemming from the conviction that “The universe is on the side of justice” (King, Stride, 88).
During the years after the bus boycott, King grew increasingly committed to nonviolence. An India trip in 1959 helped him connect more intimately with Gandhi’s legacy. King began to advocate nonviolence not just in a national sphere, but internationally as well: “the potential destructiveness of modern weapons” convinced King that “the choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence” (Papers 5:424).
After Black Power advocates such as Stokely Carmichael began to reject nonviolence, King lamented that some African Americans had lost hope, and reaffirmed his own commitment to nonviolence: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence” (King, Where, 63–64). He wrote in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?: “We maintained the hope while transforming the hate of traditional revolutions into positive nonviolent power. As long as the hope was fulfilled there was little questioning of nonviolence. But when the hopes were blasted, when people came to see that in spite of progress their conditions were still insufferable … despair began to set in” (King, Where, 45). Arguing that violent revolution was impractical in the context of a multiracial society, he concluded: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil” (King, Where, 62–63).
King, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” 13 April 1960, in Papers 5:419–425.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
King, Where Do We Go from Here, 1967.