Nonviolent Direct Action/ Soul Force

Nonviolent methods must be more powerful than violent ones, applications of greater mass and energy, greater fire and greater light. Mass nonviolent power fused physical with psychological, moral, and spiritual force.

Such mighty passionate force had to be tempered and bounded by compassion, sensitive understanding, and humility—qualities contained in what King called goodwill. The grace of goodwill—“the love of God working in the lives of men”—not only rendered righteousness a power that mortal beings could wield safely. It also deepened this power by making it a force for personal conversion and transformation, for releasing one’s inner evil, for realizing one’s higher self—the “better angels of our nature,” as Lincoln put it. This difficult alchemy of justice and love was the only way to avert psychological legacies of hatred and bitterness, and to bring about long-term social healing, the mending of broken community.

Traditional pacifism and even Gandhian nonviolence stressed the power of love alone to effect change. The nonviolent philosophy King synthesized aspired to be more dynamic and dialectical. It would combine two divinely originated forces, as he interpreted them, into one—the power of justice and righteousness and the power of agape, or creative goodwill. If the power of love could transform individual hearts and minds, righteousness (not self-righteousness!) grappled with collective, structural evil. King sought to merge these two powers, incompatible on the surface, into a seamless union more potent than the sum of its parts. The moral passion for justice would be even stronger, more irresistible, could truly part waters, move mountains, make ways out of no way, when leavened by the unifying force of compassion.

“Love must be at the forefront of our movement if it is to be a successful movement,” he told Glenn Smiley at their first meeting. “When we speak of love, we speak of understanding goodwill toward all men. We speak of a redemptive, a creative sort of love.” Then he shifted accent marks.

“We see that the real tension is not between the Negro citizens of Montgomery and the white citizens,” he said to his new white friend, “but it is a conflict between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. If there is a victory—and there will be a victory—the victory will not be merely for the Negro citizens and a defeat for the white citizens. It will be a victory for justice and a defeat of injustice. It will be a victory for goodness in its long struggle with the forces of evil. This is a spiritual movement.”
Love or compassion necessitated justice and vice versa. The Montgomery bus boycott served as crucible for the faith that good would ultimately triumph over evil. [93-94]
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Within the fold and against the walls of injustice, King pioneered the first self-consciously nonviolent movement in United States history. It did not avoid, appease, or stifle conflict but faced and fostered it. The movement did not constrain or inhibit force but marshaled it creatively for transformative ends. Like martial artists, activists took the force of the adversary and turned it against itself. Nonviolent theorist Richard Gregg, who influenced King, called this force “moral jujitsu.”

Guided by Gandhi, Gregg, Rustin, Smiley, and other teachers—above all by the Montgomery foot soldiers—King crafted a coherent philosophy of nonviolent conflict. It incorporated others’ ideas about strategy, tactics, and technique into a wider ethical and spiritual framework. In Montgomery he tested the philosophy in the raw experience and uncharted terrain out of which he articulated it.
Rarely has a leader melded theory and practice so successfully as King did during the bus boycott. For this new public philosophy, which until his death he retooled to fit historical shifts, he owed much to circumstance and locale, more to experienced organizers who tutored him, more still to the black church culture and social gospel that he refashioned to serve his nonviolent ideal.

Initially he called the method “passive resistance,” but this was misunderstood as passivity. He stressed how it was spiritually aggressive while physically non-threatening, in the first place toward its own practitioners—an inward cleansing that supplanted the “normal” internalized aggression of anger turned into powerless depression. It “does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had.” It converted the energy of anger and fear into the sinews of inner strength. It helped to heal one’s own pain and trauma.

In its outward projection the spiritual aggression grasped the adversary’s conscience, awakening its moral sense by shaming, or by appealing to one’s higher values. Just as no physical harm would be inflicted, there would be no internal violence of spirit: no derogatory language or gestures, for example. Any emotional hurt—from shame, perhaps—would be the pain of growth, not dehumanization, and ultimately healing.

The aim was not to defeat or humiliate the adversary but to humanize him or her. To plant seeds of eventual friendship or alliance—to communicate, to forge a relationship against the grain. The person’s humanity would be respected at all times, even while their actions were interrupted.

While aimed at redeeming the adversary, the spiritual force sought to eliminate the evil structure that the adversary served, often against his/her better judgment, or feeling trapped in it. The spiritual force would give the adversary a choice, a way out. It would do away with the evil structure not b destroying its physical form, but by dismantling it from within: releasing the human energy that kept it going. No lives or limbs would be lost, on the opposing side anyway. The evil structure would be no less dead than if physically destroyed—and much harder to rebuild.

Again and again King rang out his Christian mantra that unearned suffering was redemptive. The idea was that suffering educated, transformed, and ennobled the sufferer and those who witnessed it. The model was Jesus on the cross and the martyrs who followed his path. The pain of Good Friday would give way to the glory of Easter. Suffering brought rebirth, of the soul and of the community.
“The cross,” King wrote, “is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community.”

The moral universe was on the side of justice and healing. People had cosmic companionship in their struggles to transform mortal suffering into personal and social rebirth. But this did not mean that the kingdom of God would roll in on “wheels of inevitability.” People had to activate the Spirit within them, turn on their inner light, in order to connect their soul’s transfiguration with the bending of the universe toward wholeness.

Only new selves could give birth to a new world. Only such a new world could sustain the new human beings who constituted it, who would sustain it in turn.Thus, soul force would tap into the cosmic force forging universal wholeness. “Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love,” King said, “there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” [124-26, 129]
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By 1967 King’s prophecy from his Birmingham jail cell, which he himself had left fallow, was now bursting from him like overripe fruit. He was advocating a dynamic middle course between pseudo-insurrection and complacent gradualism that pursued the creative extremism of militant civil disobedience. He called it the “militant middle.” He explained that mass marches had been powerful tools in the South because they were outlawed. It was rebellion. But in northern cities mass marches were familiar and respectable. Something more audacious was needed to turn the inner cities around. [349]

“To raise protest to an appropriate level for cities,” he proclaimed in August 1967, “to invest it with aggressive but nonviolent qualities,” it was now necessary to apply mass civil disobedience as an alternative to rioting. “To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer lasting, costly to the society but not wantonly destructive. Moreover, it is more difficult for government to quell it by superior force. Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force. It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be. Indeed”—here he sounded like anticolonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, the bible of black nationalism—“they will be mentally healthier if they do not suppress rage but vent it constructively and use its energy peacefully but forcefully to cripple the operations of an oppressive society.” He believed that nonviolent insurrection could finally free poor blacks from the psychological death of ghetto slavery.

He pointed out that civil disobedience had never been tried on a mass scale in the North. Even in the South it had “rarely been seriously organized and resolutely pursued.” Too often “it was employed incorrectly” and “resorted to only when there was an absence of mass support and its purpose was headline-hunting.”

Mass civil disobedience “as a new stage of struggle,” King claimed, “can transmute the deep anger of the ghetto into a creative force.” [370]

King said that direct action must be “as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying life or property.”

Overriding opposition from key advisers, he announced the Poor People’s Campaign at an Atlanta press conference on December 4, 1967.

SCLC “will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C., next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government.

“If this means forcible repression of our movement,” he stated, “we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination.” It would be a trek to the capital by “suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.”

Playing the media with their usual virtuosity, King and Andy Young mustered the kind of credible threat that in diplomacy must be taken dead seriously. The White House, reeling still from the October 1967 Pentagon siege and heightened antiwar protests, braced itself for a new front of civil disorder. Not doubting that King meant business, the FBI fired up a new espionage operation to disable the Poor People’s Campaign.

King made clear that the meaning of the campaign went beyond people’s livelihoods. Nonviolent struggle had to prove itself, redeem itself, in order to be able to fight on. [379-82]

Nonviolent mass action, he believed, was the most fruitful means not only to end immediate evils but to bring about social regeneration, and not only in his own country. Replacing the president in 1968 might bring peace for a season; it might even, for a time, still the troubled waters of racial strife. But electing a new president, even the prince of Camelot (Robert Kennedy), was not more than a short-term expedient. It was militant mass action (with electoral politics playing an intermediate role) that would reshape history, that would make the revolution for human rights and economic justice, that would enable men and women to set afoot as new people in a new land. Racked with doubts about so many things, he held fast to his faith that the fateful choice was between nonviolent revolution and barbarism, between nonviolence and nonexistence. [421]
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Dr. King was never more of a moral warrior, and never more deeply committed to nonviolence, than when he was approaching the end of his life. He did not see these stances as inconsistent, but as prerequisites for each other. Some claimed that nonviolence died with Dr. King. Quite the contrary. In the United States and around the world, from Eastern Europe to the Philippines to South Africa, nonviolent direct action flexed its muscle during the last third of the twentieth century.

King was convinced that assertive nonviolent action, which he liked to call soul force, was not only more ethical than violence but more effective, especially long-term. He did not think that violent methods had ever been truly effective, whether in the Civil War, which left its legacy of wretched white supremacy, in global warfare, or in ghetto riots. In just six decades since its “invention” by Gandhi in 1906, mass nonviolent action in King’s view had proven more successful than six millennia of human violence. This was partly because it did not leave bitterness behind to haunt future generations. It stymied the law of the multiplication of evil. He aspired to create the moral equivalent of civil war, whose just reconciliation would not give lie to Lincoln’s malice toward none, charity for all.

King believed that soul force—the synthesis of justice and compassion, of faith and understanding, of social and personal rebirth—was rooted in ancient wisdom but geared to the future of human evolution. Soul force required the fire of faith and moral passion not only to break down the walls of inhumanity, but to forge the new person: a free person whose emotional capacity would be as mature as her intellect, whose mental and emotional being, rather than sabotaging each other, would coalesce into a more enlightened creature who more truly reflected the image of God. Soul force would deliver as well the beloved community, knit together by compassionate understanding, heartfelt communication, bonds of human intimacy.

But however strong his faith, King had grave concerns about what was to come. He believed that the Poor People’s Campaign—he somehow knew it was to be his last—would demonstrate whether creative nonviolent action would prove to be the dominant instrument of social change for the future. Or, would it be thrust aside by armed struggle on one side, and people’s anomie and “timid supplication” on the other?

Let us transplant King’s anguish onto the uncertain terrain of our new century. Will we inherit a future brokered by self-righteous terrorists, official or unofficial, and by masses of disempowered consumers alienated from the world and their own souls, terrified to their bones?

We who claim the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. must cling to the life raft of nonviolence, in word and deed, in passion and compassion, as determinedly as he did during the last years of his life.
The alternative is unspeakable.

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