Judging on the basis of opposition from some, especially in the last year or so, peaceful protest has become a controversial topic. I sometimes hear opponents question how anyone who holds gainful employment has time to protest. However, if something is important enough, we find time; in fact, the converse is true: it would be lazy of us not to do so. We also only have to look back at the lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrated this week, to understand why his lessons on peaceful protest still remain relevant.
In his book Stride Toward Freedom” published in 1957, King described his principle of nonviolence: “True paciﬁsm,’’ or ‘‘nonviolent resistance,” he wrote, is ‘‘a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.’’ King drew upon the ideals of civil disobedience championed by Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi and American author Henry David Thoreau, the latter of whose theories he had been introduced to as a 15-year-old freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944.
King therefore became intellectually devoted to nonviolent resistance at an early age and experienced it in practice during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, following Rosa Parks’ decision to disobey the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South and give up her seat to a white rider. It was at this time that King, despite threats on his life, opted not to use armed bodyguards to defend himself.
Following the beginning of the bus boycott, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was founded, and King was selected to become president of the group. As a result, he became the focus of white resistance. Early the next year, in January 1956, his house was bombed, but he responded with compassion.
On that day, he had been speaking at the First Baptist Church in Atlanta. After hearing news of the bombing, he relayed the information to the crowd and informed them that he would have to leave. Upon approaching his house, he found it surrounded by blacks who were angry, armed with knives and guns. He pushed through the crowd to ensure that his wife Coretta and ten-month-old son were safe.
In his book Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, author Taylor Branch writes, “King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. ‘Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.’”
The bombing of King’s home was the impetus for the MIA to file a federal suit requesting the abolition of laws regarding the segregation of buses. During the boycott, 381 days total, 17,000 black citizens of Montgomery refused to ride buses in the city, finding other ways to get to work and to run errands, either walking or carpooling with black friends who owned vehicles. Ultimately, in December 1956, due to both loss of revenue and a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended successfully. To celebrate, King and several supporters boarded a bus in front of his home the day following the court decision.
A month earlier, in a speech to MIA supporters in front of the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, King had said, “The strong man is the man who will not hit back, who can stand up for his rights and yet not hit back.” King demonstrated his words in action years later in 1962, when he was jailed for peaceful protest in Birmingham, an event that resulted in his well-composed and oft-read “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” It took a while, especially under the questionable, brutal tactics of Birmingham commissioner of public safety Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, but, finally, white lawmakers in the city agreed to desegregate restrooms, water fountains, and lunch counters.
In peaceful protests geared towards the increase of human dignity, the message and tactics are still applicable. Wherever social injustice is rampant, passive resistance continues to send a strong message–and, in the end–and with enough unfaltering pressure–it works. However, all of us should scrutinize protests that diverge from this message of peacefulness and the peaceful tactics they require.
Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT-Martin. She is pursuing an Ed.S. degree in Educational Leadership through Lipscomb University in Nashville. She enjoys downtown Corinth.