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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“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 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 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.”


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