18 Jan 2010

The Strategy of Nonviolent Resistance

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Everyone is familiar with the “I Have a Dream” speech, but I just heard Martin Luther King’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s really good, except that he inconsistently thinks tapping on the federal government is a peaceful solution to political and moral problems.

I thought maybe this was simply an intellectual error on his part, but in another speech commemorating the Civil Rights movement, MLK praised a “Southern president” for having the courage to use the “might of the federal government” to break open the fetters of the Alabama government. Now if Lyndon Johnson were a well-regarded moral authority like the Dalai Lama, then we could still say MLK didn’t see the contradiction. But no, he was calling on a stronger engine of oppression–the one he opposed for bombing people in Vietnam–to help him overturn oppression at a smaller scale.

Note also that I’m not merely throwing in a criticism to be a nitpick. Under anybody’s definition, the hopes of the Civil Rights marchers have not been realized. If you had asked them to describe the situation of the black community in 2010, under the first black president, I think they (a) would be shocked that it happened so fast and (b) would be shocked at how little progress was made on many of the other deficiencies that fueled their righteous indignation. That’s what happens when you turn to the federal government to help your cause. (And note that this lesson applies not just to minorities seeking civil rights, but also to anti-abortion activists. This isn’t a race thing.)

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