From Civility to Nonviolence: Honoring Dr. King

In the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, there is a new call for civility in our political discourse. The crises of our time demand a common sense of purpose and collective action. On what would have been his 82nd birthday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words ring as true today as they did in the 1960s. The state that once rejected the King holiday is now providing the renewed impetus to heed his prophetic voice.

King always believed that it was necessary to listen to and even love one's enemies. That did not mean tolerating injustice. He saw that anger, while understandable on the part of the oppressed and aggrieved, could never bring about true peace and social justice. Instead of trying to smash and destroy the opponents of freedom and equality, King called for building a new set of human relationships based on dignity and respect. Everyone is capable of changing, and all members of society are needed to create the "beloved community."

Civility is an important but incomplete step toward Dr. King's vision of nonviolence. Creating King's vision of a nonviolent society means that we must not only stop random and targeted violence from hijacking our political process; it means that we must confront both the violence that far too commonly strikes youth and residents in our cities and the violence that plays far too central a role in our nation's foreign policy. And it means we need to give all people the opportunity to live fulfilling livecs.

King's writings from the last few years of his life are especially poignant on these points. Reflecting on the strident opposition to integration, the urban rebellions, and the Vietnam War, King asserted the need for us to go beyond usual politics and "undergo a mental and spiritual re-evaluation." We need to recognize, as King did, that "the richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually," so that we can begin working systematically "to bridge the huge gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress."

"Enlarged material powers," King warned repeatedly, "spell enlarged peril if there is no proportionate growth of the soul." We have "guided missiles and misguided men." We must begin the shift from what King called a "thing"-oriented society to a "person"-oriented society. "When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people," he declared, "the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

Living in inner-city Chicago, King discovered the futility of trying to involve dispossessed young people in the kinds of nonviolent mass marches that had worked in the South. And they gave him a lot to think about when they demanded to know why they should be nonviolent in Chicago when the U.S. government was employing such massive violence against poor peasants in Vietnam.

Thus, King's "A Time to Break Silence," his soul-stirring antiwar speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, was the result of his wrestling not only with the Vietnam War but also with the questions raised by these young people in what he called "our dying cities."

"The war in Vietnam," he recognized, "is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. We are on the wrong side of a world revolution because we refuse to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

"We have come to value things more than people. Our technological development has outrun our spiritual development. We have lost our sense of community, of interconnection and participation."

In order to get on the right side of that revolution, we as a nation must undergo a "radical revolution of values," King emphasized.

Then comes a paragraph in which by simply replacing the word "communism" with "terrorism," King could be talking to us today. "This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons... We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops."

King developed a powerful vision of how a racist, militaristic, and materialist world -- tormented by violence and alienation -- could be transformed through the redemptive human capacity for Love.

In Detroit, you can witness his vision of nonviolence being put into practice by the Coalition Against Police Brutality, which is devoted to the creation of "Peace Zones for Life." To get at the root cause of police abuse, the organization seeks to reduce and eliminate the need for citizens to call the police in the first place. It promotes "community-based conflict resolution and mediation initiatives" using "methods that will allow the citizens' options to submit their grievances for resolution by their neighbors or persons whom they trust; thereby, remaining outside the police/criminal justice system and eliminating conflict within our communities."

Moreover, the organization seeks to involve neighborhood youth themselves, many who had once been sucked into gangs or drug dealing, in conflict resolution practices and community-oriented, small-business development. It offers a critical example of how we can move from the practice of civility toward the broader goal of nonviolence.

As King argued, "true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice."

Based on an excerpt from The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, available in Spring 2011 from the University of California Press.