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.” 

***

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.’”

***

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.”

Passé?

“Everybody was jettisoning nonviolence, black and white. White radicals sneered at it. Black Power people sneered at it. ‘Power comes out of the mouth of a gun,’ so on and so forth. And so it became passé pretty quickly even as a matter of intellectual investigation.” 

Ironically, Branch says, “The only place I found that studied it in classrooms was in our war colleges, the Naval War College and West Point.”

And as a result there are a number of things people misunderstand about King and nonviolence. For one thing it’s not the same as Mahatma Gandhi’s “passive resistance.”

“King had a little trouble with the Gandhians” and their incessant fasting, says Branch, who decided to edit out several hundred pages of his manuscript dealing with the Gandhians. “He was over there in India and he said for them the test of your commitment was whether you could fast. He used to joke, ‘Gandhi obviously never tasted barbecue.’” 

Passive resistance, Branch points out, was easier in a country where 95 percent of the people were your natural supporters, as in India, versus America, where you’re only 10 percent—and a good portion of the rest were actively hostile. Instead King’s nonviolence depended on being active, using demonstrations, direct actions, to “amplify the message” of the protest they were making, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives and limbs to do it. 

***

I wanted to get a sense from Branch of his personal arc from growing up in Atlanta in the era of segregation to his decision to embark on what would be a 24-year-long immersion in the world of Dr. King. 

King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., presided over a leading Atlanta church and I asked Branch, “You grew up in Atlanta, right? Did you run across the Kings?”

“I never laid eyes on him even though he was in my hometown.”

“What was Atlanta like in terms of race when you were growing up?”

“Well, it was all around. My family was not political. My dad had a dry- cleaning plant, six children, and we all worked. His philosophy was if everybody worked as hard as he did, we’d be fine. But the nature of the civil rights movement was relentless; it was all around me. I’m pretty sure I was in first grade the year of the Brown decision [Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court struck down school segregation]. And I finished college the spring that King was killed. So my whole formative years it was all around me. And I, like most people, was trying to avoid it because it was frightening. But at the same time, it was so persistent that it went...as deep as you would allow it, into whatever you believed, whether it was secular or spiritual or both. So eventually it kind of changed my interest against my will.”

“Against your will?”

“I wasn’t looking to be involved in politics. I wanted to be a surgeon. When I was little, a surgeon saved my life after a motorcycle accident. But...I was fascinated by the civil rights movement whenever it intruded, by how it scared people, how it scared me.”

“Scared in the sense of how a settled world was coming apart?”

“People made a huge effort to act as though they had it under control, that it wasn’t a threat to them. And they wanted to believe that they had a moral position on it. There was just a lot of denial, a lot of hypocrisy. Your teenage years are when you’re attuned to hypocrisy anyhow. But if you’re growing up in Atlanta in 1960 when they’re all saying, ‘We’re better than all the other Southern cities, we’re not really segregated, we’re making progress,’ and you realize that underneath it, they’re very uncomfortable about all this.” 

“So you were living some deep contradictions.”

“Yeah. And they finally wore me down. I think there was one moment in ’63, when I was 16, and I was trying to figure things out like most kids, reading a lot of philosophy and that sort of thing. And I told my mother that when I got really old and stable in my surgical career, that I wanted to stick my toe in race relations because I thought it was a profound issue. And it seemed like almost as soon as I said that, within a week, was when Dr. King sent the small children into the dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham. And I was stupefied by those photographs of the little girls. Mostly girls. They were marching and not waiting until they were well established in their surgical careers, and they were singing the same kinds of songs we would sing in Sunday school, and I was embarrassed. I wanted to know where it came from that they would do that.”

“I know you’d done a lot of journalism before starting on King. Could you tell me what inspired you to take on this huge project?”

“Well, I wanted to do the King thing before I even wrote any other books. For a personal reason. I kept reading the books that came out about the movement and not feeling satisfied. Most of them were analytical—who was more radical or more militant or da-da-dah. And to me, it was much more personal, and I wanted to know where it had come from. So what I wanted, what I hungered for was a narrative history. And it was around that time that I read Shelby Foote’s three-volume Civil War.

“So I stumbled into the conviction that narrative where things are personal is the vehicle for discovery across racial gaps. It’s not an idea that’s going to carry you over. I never believed that.”

Branch’s passion is for the stories and the remarkable characters like King and Bob Moses. Indeed it is Moses, Harvard-educated world traveler, philosopher and firebrand who was famously beaten up during the Freedom Rides who I came to think was the figure Branch most identified with in the King saga. The one he somehow feels is more accessible than the living saint he never met before he was murdered in 1968. And Branch confirms this, confiding that in the planned miniseries version of his King trilogy, now being created in collaboration with “The Wire” producer David Simon for HBO, Bob Moses is the central character: We will see King and the civil rights movement through his eyes. (Oprah Winfrey is involved as a producer, as she was with Selma.)

There was something unusual about Branch’s King biography that I found hard to put my finger on since I’d read the first volume when it came out in 1988. It was an emotional experience for me in a way few works of fiction or nonfiction have ever been. I would read some chapters over breakfast and find myself actually tearing up and, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, occasionally weeping, at the courage of King and his people. 

I wondered about the source of the emotional power of this book. And I thought it might have something to do with the amazing rarity of goodness in the world, in human nature. And its plenitude in King and the civil rights movement. Where does it come from? To Branch, King’s prophetic righteousness has roots not merely in religion but in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers. 

The pairing of civics and religion is an important point to Branch. He comes back to it repeatedly. He says the secret to understanding King’s great speeches is “pairing”—“he always pairs spirituality with constitutionality” as the two sources of the righteousness of his cause.

“He would use paired phrases of ‘One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream.’ And then, you know, something from the Constitution, ‘We the people,’ and something from religion. Sometimes he called it ‘equal souls and equal votes.’ He framed it very broadly that the mandate for nonviolence had an overlooked common underpinning in our civic heritage.” He tells me he thinks of the heroes of the civil rights movement as “our second Founding Fathers.” 

“What’s interesting to me is in your portrait of King as a student is that he was a nerd in a way. He was interested in [abstruse philosophers and theologians like] Paul Tillich and planned to go teach graduate theology, and yet gradually, gradually he...how would you describe him?”

“Well, I think he was a nerd. And he was also a dandy. He was a performer. The gift that he was given, he loved the turn of phrases and he loved art, or he loved the power, he loved all the ideas. But he took the ideas seriously enough that when people started making sacrifices based on those principles beginning in the bus boycott, he developed a very powerful relationship with them. That didn’t mean that he wanted to take the equivalent risks.” 

Here’s where the myth has obscured the complexities of the man. 

“I mean it’s notable that he didn’t join the sit-ins until he was dragged into them. He refused to go on the Freedom Rides, but he respected the kids that did because they were applying values that he understood the underpinnings of. So he’s endorsing them, and there’s this tension because they appreciate the fact that he’s endorsing them because he’s got a big name, but they want him to go with them. But he was reluctant about the risks that he wanted to take. I think what changed is his, how much he was willing to risk for the belief that he had formulated by the time of the bus boycott and certainly by the time of the ’60s. When he got the Nobel Peace Prize.”

When he went from Oslo to Selma, it was a kind of symbolic turning point, Branch says. Instead of being “dragged, he starts dragging. It’s not people pushing him, he’s pushing them.” Or as Branch puts it, “He realized he couldn’t preach America out of segregation,” into justice. It would require more direct action. Self-immersion.

I asked him about the idea that, after Selma, King knew he was going to die. Was that responsible for the change?

“I don’t know. He becomes like a driven Old Testament prophet who is driven to make a witness, knowing that it’s not going to be appreciated. I mean...all those guys used to carry around [Jewish religious philosopher Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s book The Prophets. They really identified with the prophets.

“I don’t know where all that came from in King, but it got more and more powerful, and he felt isolated. It was almost like by the end...this is probably going beyond my qualifications, but it was almost a sense of comfort that he was isolated because it gave him the sense that he was doing the right thing when he went to Memphis to support a garbagemen’s strike. Nobody was paying any attention to what he was doing when he was in Memphis with the Poor People’s Campaign. He was dismissed by most people.”

By that time he was desperately upset, Branch says. The hostile reaction to his outspoken turn against the Vietnam War was perhaps the last straw. He speaks of a high-profile antiwar speech King gave at Riverside Church in New York City, once home to some of his biggest supporters. “One of the most poignant scenes there, after Riverside, April 4, ’67, was when the whole white establishment came down on King’s head. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. Stick to race relations.’ That hurt King and he was upset about it because he said basically they’re saying ‘We don’t have a voice as regular citizens.’”

When I asked Branch what he thought might have happened if King had not been assassinated, he said, “He was pretty wrung out at the end. He probably would have had some sort of breakdown.” 

Toward the close of our conversation I asked Branch about what I found the most radical and difficult thing about King’s philosophy: following the injunction to “love your enemies.”

Which brought us to one of the most powerful single moments I found in all 2,500 pages. The moment when the Klansmen who murdered the three young Freedom Riders, during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, leveled their guns at the youths on a back road in the dead of the night. It’s one of those moments that testifies to Branch’s skill in making his trilogy not just a biography of King but of the entire civil rights movement. 

That night one of the three voter registration volunteers, Michael Schwerner, confronted one of the Klansmen, who had stuck a gun in his ribs, the gun that would shortly kill him. As Branch recounts it, “He says to the guy who was about to shoot him, ‘Sir, I know just how you feel.’”

Sir, I know just how you feel.

Still astonishing to me. “How did we learn he said that?” I ask Branch. “From one of the people who shot him?”

“Two of them.”

Two of the murderers confessed and recounted Schwerner’s amazing moment of courage in the face of death.

But it was more than courage—it was a disciplined act of the kind of nonviolence King preached. Not just passive, but active nonviolence—reaching out to get inside the Other, even empathize with what brought him to such a hateful place. It did not convert the Klansmen, but, Branch says, “It had such an effect on the FBI agent [who took the confessions]. 

“Because they didn’t believe it. They didn’t think it would be credible to a jury. But the first Klan confessor was so struck by it, he said, ‘I’ll never forget it.’ And we’re lucky in a way that the FBI inspector who should have been the lead character in Mississippi Burning...

“Joe Sullivan. Wonderful guy. He basically said, ‘We can’t go to Washington with one confession because the director [J. Edgar Hoover, an arch foe of King] doesn’t like these cases, and he will figure out some way to subvert this and say that it’s not right.’ He said, ‘I want to have a second confession in my back pocket when I go up there so when [Hoover] says, “This is not strong enough.” I’ll have a second one.’

“Well, it took him a few months,” Branch says, “but when they got the second confession, the second Klansman, who was present and a witness, used the exact same words:

‘Sir, I know just how you feel.’ Seven words.” 

He pauses. “That is so...I mean, that to me was the epitome of it.

“You’re not giving into your terror, your anger, and you’re still trying to make some sort of contact with a snarling animal. There’s an expression of faith that there’s something human, even with no sign of it. And the guy’s got a gun on him and an instant later kills him.”

To Branch that moment perfectly exemplified the kind of “moral witness” King sought to bear upon the evils he faced. 

“Sir, I know just how you feel.”

“That was the epitome,” he repeats.  

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that while King's movement supporters were present on Bloody Sunday, he was not at the protest that day. Police drove the marchers toward Selma, not away from it. We also corrected the year of the Watts riots; they took place in 1965, not 1967.

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