The Radical Paradox of Martin Luther King’s Devotion to Nonviolence

Biographer Taylor Branch makes a timely argument about civil right leader’s true legacy

King led a throng of 25,000 marchers through downtown Montgomery in 1965. (Photograph by Bob Adelman)
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First there was the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act last July, one of the central achievements of Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade. Then, last August, there was what has come to be known simply as “Ferguson,” the bitterness over a killing that reminded us that issues of race, violence and nonviolence are still simmering, still ready to explode at any time. And now in January, a major film called Selma will be released nationwide that dramatizes a key moment in the evolution of King’s struggle.

Selma was a turning point in King’s life as well, according to Taylor Branch, whose three-volume, 2,500-page chronicle, America in the King Yearsis one of the landmark biographies in American history.

March, 1965. King's demonstrators had been beaten by the police, driven back from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, back toward Selma on a day called “Bloody Sunday.” But suddenly there was a chance to cross that bridge again. As Branch describes it, “King stood stunned at the divide, with but an instant to decide whether this was a trap or a miraculous parting of the Red Sea. If he stepped ahead, the thrill of heroic redemption for Bloody Sunday could give way to any number of reversals....If he stepped back, he could lose or divide the movement under a cloud of timidity.” King stepped forward and nothing was ever the same.

Not just in the civil rights movement, but as Branch told me when I spent the afternoon talking to him recently, nothing was the same for King either.

“I think what changed is how much he was willing to risk for the belief that he had formulated,” Branch says. “After Selma, I don’t think he expected to live a long time.” 

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With events in Ferguson putting everyone again on edge about race and violence, I wanted to talk to Branch about King’s legacy—and especially his belief in nonviolence. Toward the end of his trilogy (a work that earned Branch a Pulitzer and a MacArthur “genius” award), he writes about the “paradox” that King’s doctrine of nonviolence has become a kind of “orphan” in contemporary intellectual and political discourse, rarely studied or further investigated. You might say that its substance has almost evaporated in the shimmering haze of hagiography. And yet—paradoxically—King’s techniques continue to figure prominently in political upheavals around the world.

Branch has also written about college sports and former President Bill Clinton.

“Look at the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the whole Soviet Union, begun with nonviolent demonstrations in a Polish shipyard,” says Branch, sitting in the spare dining room of his modest Baltimore home. And on the afternoon we talked, there were protests in Hong Kong that echoed the Ferguson nonviolence gesture for “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” All demonstrating the persistent power of King’s strategy of nonviolence. And yet, Branch feels, the lessons of the King legacy are still not taken seriously enough. 

In late November, on the morning after the announcement that the grand jury was not issuing an indictment in the Ferguson case—and the night of violence that followed—I reread passages in Branch’s biography about King and the 1965 Watts riots, where he’d tried to say violence was not the way, pointed the finger at poverty and policing as root causes but was rebuffed by both sides. 

“He was torn by the situation,” Branch tells me, but like Ferguson should, “King was trying to tell the nation something it didn’t want to hear, that we can’t put race on the back burner. That race isn’t just a southern problem or a problem of segregation, it’s an American problem at the heart of American history and the measure of American democracy.”

So what would he say to the people of Ferguson? “I think he’d say ‘We don’t win by violence, but something’s got to change, we have to show America it has to be addressed, it just has to be in the forefront of our politics.’”

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Branch is a soft-spoken man with a mild Southern accent he acquired growing up in Atlanta, and the sturdy build of the star linebacker he was for his high-school team. Now 67, born on January 14, a day before Martin Luther King’s birthday, Branch has not lost the linebacker’s tenacity in fighting for what has become his cause—the battle to prevent Dr. King’s profoundly considered theory of nonviolence from being relegated to history, and not recognized for its relevance to the issues America and the world faces today.

King’s practice, Branch says, was complex and radical and has been often misunderstood. Some of his closest supporters had their doubts about King’s own commitment to nonviolence—whether it was “personal” or just an abstraction for him.

The subject came up when I asked about one of the most dramatic moments in the first volume of Branch’s trilogy, Parting the Waters

Birmingham, Alabama. In the midst of the explosive confrontation between King’s movement and the forces of segregation led by the notorious commissioner of public safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, who had unleashed snarling attack dogs and fire hoses on protesters, including children, marching to end segregation. 

During a meeting of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a man rose up from the audience, leapt onto the stage and smashed King in the face. Punched him hard. And then punched him again. 

After the first punch, Branch recounts, King just dropped his hands and stood there, allowed the assailant (who turned out to be a member of the American Nazi Party) to punch him again. And when King’s associates tried to step in King stopped them:

“Don’t touch him!” King shouted. “Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.”

“Yes,” Branch remembers. “It was in September 1962 in Birmingham, which was still segregated. I mean very segregated. They were having their convention, which was a gutsy thing to do because they’re inviting an integrated group to have a convention explicitly promoting civil rights in a fiercely segregated town.”

When the assailant started slugging King, most people thought, Branch says, that “it was a surprise part of the program. He walked up and slugged him and people still thought that this might be some sort of nonviolent demonstration or something. And then he hit him again!”

“Hit him hard?”

“Hit him hard! In fact, he couldn’t continue the rest of the convention. Knocked him around and finally people realized this was not a demonstration, that this was an emergency and went and dragged him out...and swarmed around this Nazi, and King is already saying, “‘Don’t touch him, don’t hurt him.’”

It was an important revelation, even for some of those who had been close to him for years. Even for Rosa Parks, the heroine of King’s first struggle, the Montgomery bus boycott. “Rosa Parks was quite taken by that,” Branch says, “because she always thought that nonviolence was an abstraction to King. She told him that she had never really seen it in him until that moment. And a number of other people did too.”

People still don’t quite believe in nonviolence in the radical way King did, though Branch thinks it’s the most important aspect of his legacy.

“You call nonviolence ‘an orphan,” I say to him. “What do you mean by that?”

“The force behind the idea of nonviolence was given its most powerful run in the civil rights era. [Which showed] that it could have an effect in the world. But it became passé pretty quickly toward the end of Dr. King’s career.”

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