Martin Luther King and the Purpose of Protest

Martin Luther King has achieved near-universal folk hero status in the United States. The folk tale is that his commitment to nonviolence was valuable because it was not extreme, and therefore engendered productive conversation and understanding rather than rancor — a sort of latter-day Booker T. Washington. I think it’s important to remember that this is not how MLK was perceived at the time, or even, by some, for decades after his assassination. In fact, MLK generated a whole lot of rancor.

His tactics were viewed not as moderate, but as extreme. During his life, he was under constant surveillance by the FBI, who sent him a letter trying to get him to kill himself. Here’s ex-North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1983, explaining why he did not support a holiday to honor Dr. King (notice the conservative appeal to order):

A federal holiday should be an occasion for “shared values,” but King’s “very name itself remains a source of tension, a deeply troubling symbol of divided society,” Helms said.

Helms said King had used “nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities.”

Alabama and Arkansas still refuse to devote a day to King alone, instead celebrating “Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Birthdays.”

But King knew that there would have to be tension for black people to win the rights they deserved. From “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

You may well ask, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

To state the obvious, he wrote these words while in jail. He had been arrested for disobeying an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” He wrote the letter in response to white religious leaders who called his protests “unwise and untimely,” as the opening sentence of the letter states. Today, his support of “non-violent action” is usually contrasted against “violent action.” But at the time, the alternative proposed by many white leaders was no action at all, but rather “negotiation,” which King knew would lead nowhere without action first.

Keep this in mind when Republicans today tell protestors that they should “be more like Dr. King” and “unite rather than divide” or other such pacifying aphorisms. Of course, not every cause that gives rise to protest is righteous. But that the immediate purpose of protest, at least to King, is not to “build bridges.” It is to force a confrontation that cannot be forced by any other means.