MLK Day: the Lessons of Pacifism & the Civil Rights Movement

MLK National Mall

Today is the celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the United States. While it is ostensibly celebrated to promote the Civil Rights Movement, one wonders why MLK, among all other more active and progressive civil rights leaders, was chosen to receive a federal holiday. The answer lies in history: Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been successful in his bid for civil rights for black people if groups like the Black Panthers and individuals such as Malcolm X did not remind America of the alternative of pacifism.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy has been one of two strong messages which are spread on this holiday: a message of anti-racism and the preaching of nonviolence. One famous quote says that nonviolence “is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” Another says “nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.” In the hands of American historians, the story of MLK has become a warning against legitimate action against oppression, and thus for the American ruling class has become a useful tool to remind people to never rebel, even if they are oppressed.

The American Party of Labor has already outlined its position on the flaws of the non-violent strategy of resistance in previous articles. Pacifism is a useful tool to those who use violence, such as those in power. Peaceful protests in the Civil Rights Movement were only successful because of the other alternative. Pacifism against fascist and authoritarian regimes is suicide and does nothing in achieving liberation. Resistance, which eventually must take on violent forms, is the only way to fight imperialism. Despite popular myth, Gandhi’s resistance did not defeat the British—rioting Indians did. We have decided that, on this important holiday celebrated by so many, we will offer both a brief history of the significance of the entire Civil Rights Movement, and not just a single individual, as well as a more expansive analysis of the tactic of nonviolence.

Historical Context

The struggle for black civil rights was definitely an advance for humanity. The black population was being exploited economically as well as intimidated socially and physically by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, assisted by lynching mobs and police. Racist terror grew from the southern states and became national in scope. At its peak, the KKK numbered in the tens of millions. Thousands were lynched, churches and houses were burned and innocents were arrested and murdered for protesting. In some states, hoards of ex-Confederate soldiers in white robes roamed the streets at will with guns and torches. Racist terrorism became widespread and institutionalized: Jim Crow laws were in full effect, segregating the black population under apartheid.

The Role of the State

Even after the supposed “end” of such outward racial oppression (these days they prefer an electric chair to a lynching rope and Death Row to the Old Oak Tree) after “equality” legislation was passed by the bourgeoisie, racism remained a powerful oppressive force in the United States. Social, economic and educational disadvantages reigned supreme. Poverty among African-Americans was widespread and education was hard to come by. Blacks were still not allowed to vote and until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were still not allowed to go into most public buildings, restaurants, schools, bathrooms or public facilities. Law enforcement continued to collaborate with groups such as the KKK. Federal enforcement such as the FBI was called upon to enforce the anti-segregation laws, but it was extremely rare that they actually did their jobs. The film Mississippi Burning for example, while giving an appropriate portrayal of such racist murder, also gives an optimistic picture of the willingness of the state to enforce its own supposed laws.

The FBI, at that point, was in fact too busy executing the infamous COINTELPRO project, which arranged the assassination of such civil rights leaders as Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Bobby Hutton and Bunchy Carter. Declassified FBI documents now show the true extent of the US government’s crimes during that time, which are freely admitted. Under the “Counterintelligence Program,” the documents say that the government should:

“Prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement. Malcolm X might have been such a ‘messiah;’ he is the martyr of the movement today. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammed all aspire to this position. Elijah Muhammed is less of a threat because of his age. King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed ‘obedience’ to ‘white, liberal doctrines’ (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism” (1).

The same document continues:

“This is of primary importance, and is, of course, a goal of our investigative activity; it should also be a goal of the Counterintelligence Program to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence” (1).

The state also refused during this time to stop violent attacks on left-wing and progressive groups, such as the slaughter of leftists by the KKK in both the Greensboro Massacre and the racist and anti-Semitic riots in Peekskill during the concert of popular black singer Paul Robeson.

Rise of the Movement

After all this sordid and star-crossed history, from 1955-1968 the African-American Civil Rights Movement arose, a time of civil unrest and popular rebellion against oppression. Out of this came such popular figures and groups as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, W. E. B. Du Bois and many others. There was a popular ferment to support the immediate end of oppression and imperialism against non-white peoples at home and abroad. Even liberals such as MLK were soon labeled as “radicals and troublemakers.” Most of the Civil Rights leaders, including King, would up dead at the hands of racist murderers or, more often, the state itself acting on the bourgeoisie’s behalf. To this day however, the imperialists are unable to kill the living memory of the movement, and they live in terror of a similar movement in the future.

The Truth about Nonviolent Protests against Oppression

Even though racist oppression still continues to the United States to this day, committed by not only individual racists and supremacist group, but also by our own bourgeoisie, the Civil Rights Movement did manage to make the rulers panic and win social and political rights for black people. The time has come however, to smash some of the Myths regarding the legacy left behind by Martin Luther King, the same message that has been picked up by the same government who created the documents above. Nonviolent protests are only one means of resisting, and must only be a way to reach the higher goal of revolution. There is a time and a place for peaceful protest, but in the real world, nonviolence must not be a doctrine or an absolute policy.

Non-violent civil disobedience only works within extremely limited context, and not against an enemy such as the American state, which are absolutely committed to violence in service of its own ends. Living under imperialism, strict adherence to non-violence on the part of the oppressed is nothing more than suicide. The victims of genocide and fascism cannot and should not use only the pacifist route to end their suffering. Oppressed people should not have to justify their struggle to idealists.

“An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind” is a typical argument heard by those who advocate nonviolence as a dogma. On the one hand the oppressors are incorrect for doing wrong but you are also equally “wrong” for striking back and trying to stop them. All violence is most certainly not “equally bad.” This line of reasoning is simply ludicrous. Nonviolence has been popularized and upheld to a level so high that it is now nothing more than a weapon in the hands of an imperial power that has no qualms about cracking the heads of protestors for civil rights. As the APL has said before, the results of the Civil Rights Movement were not because of Martin Luther King’s avocation of nonviolence, but in spite of it. The true “successful results” of nonviolence can be seen in fascist or apartheid regimes, for example the amount of peaceful protestors murdered by the United States, the Israeli government or Nazi Germany.

It’s Right to Rebel

In order to bring about true revolutionary change, we cannot rely on those in power, that is, those who create the conditions of bigotry, violence, racism and colonialism to overnight change their minds and either side with us, or give up their power. That does not happen, never has and never will. American slavery didn’t end through peaceful protest—it took a Civil War. Foreign occupation never ends peacefully, either in Africa, Palestine, Vietnam, Korea or Iraq. Fascism did not end through peaceful protest either. The desires of oppressed people to fight back must be supported, and more than that, encouraged.



Categories: Government, History, Imperialism, Racism, Racist Oppression, Revolutionary History, U.S. News, United States History, Workers Struggle

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