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Jul 4, 2000

Militant Nonviolence: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prominent activist in the civil rights movement, a spectacular orator, and a practitioner of nonviolent resistance.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provided crucial moral leadership for eradicating government-enforced racial segregation in the United States.

Inspired by American individualist Henry David Thoreau and Indian nonviolent crusader Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. King established militant nonviolent political action as the principal strategy for attacking segregationist laws. This required considerable courage since he was jailed 14 times, he was the target of countless death threats, he was stoned, he was stabbed, his home was blasted by a shotgun, his home was bombed, and a motel room where he stayed was bombed, too, before he was assassinated.

Dr. King exposed the outrageous corruption of Southern sheriffs, mayors and governors. They approved of police attacking peaceful demonstrators with cattle prods. They unleashed ferocious police dogs and aimed high pressure water hoses at children. They did nothing while Ku Klux Klan goons beat up black bus riders. They let Southern racists get away with murder.

Dr. King’s most fundamental principles harked back to the natural law tradition: there are moral standards for judging the legitimacy of laws. They aren’t legitimate just because government officials say they are. “A man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God, is a just law,” he explained. “But a man-made code that is inharmonious with the moral law is an unjust law…Let us not forget, in the memories of six million who died, that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal,’ and that everything the Freedom Fighters in Hungary did was ‘illegal.’”

Dr. King didn’t push his thinking nearly as far as philosophers of natural law, but he said this: “an unjust law is a code that the majority inflicts on the minority that is not binding on itself…Another thing that we can say is that an unjust law is a code which the majority inflicts upon the minority, which that minority had no part in enacting or creating, because that minority had no right to vote…Our conscience tells us that the law is wrong and we must resist, but we have a moral obligation to accept the penalty…We’ve made no gains without pressure, and I hope that pressure will always be moral, legal and peaceful.

Dr. King pointed out that court decisions could be as bad as laws: “Though the rights of the First Amendment guarantee that any citizen or group of citizens may engage in peaceable assembly, the South has seized upon the device of invoking injunctions to block our direct-action civil rights demonstrations. When you get set to stage a nonviolent demonstration, the city simply secures an injunction to cease and desist. Southern courts are well known for ‘sitting on’ this type of case; conceivably a two or three-year delay could be incurred…in Birmingham, we felt that we had to take a stand and disobey a court injunction against demonstrations, knowing the consequences and being prepared to meet them — or the unjust law would break our movement.”

Dr. King aroused controversy throughout his tumultuous public career. Conservatives opposed him for challenging “states’ rights.”  So-called liberals like President John F. Kennedy were concerned that he would provoke disorder, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy approved FBI bugging of King’s home, office and hotel rooms across the country. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned that King was consorting with communists.

FBI bugging failed to provide any evidence that King was involved with a communist conspiracy, but it did reveal his extensive womanizing. This has deeply embarrassed civil rights leaders. Many people were further scandalized by the revelation that phrases, sentences and some paragraphs in his book Stride Toward Freedom (1958) had been lifted from Basic Christian Ethics by Paul Ramsay and Agape and Eros by Anders Nygren. Dr. King, it seems, had flaws like many other people.

Moreover, Dr. King had some very muddled ideas. Exasperated by the intransigence of state and local governments, he pleaded for federal intervention to enforce equal rights, and apparently he came to believe that federal power could cure poverty. One biographer claimed he was a closet socialist.

Yet he protested many laws. Some laws denied blacks access to government services for which they were forced to pay taxes. There were state and local laws mandating private sector segregation. Municipal bus’s were government-protected monopolies, making it illegal for entrepreneurs to operate competitive, integrated buses. When Dr. King helped lead a bus boycott, the boycotters were hit with penalties provided by anti-boycott laws. Carpools were organized to help boycotters get to work, and they were prosecuted for violating laws which required that carpool vehicles be licensed as taxis and that riders be charged government-mandated minimum fares. Dr. King tangled with police and tax collectors. He considered military conscription a form of slavery.

Dr. King, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, always insisted on nonviolence: “As you press on with justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline using only the weapon of love…Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos…In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him…you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929, the second child of Martin Luther King, Sr. who was pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church; and Alberta Williams, a preacher’s daughter. Young Martin’s maternal grandmother “Mama” Williams lived with the family, helping to raise him and his two siblings.

At 12, he entered an oratorical contest sponsored by the black Elks. He delivered his talk, “The Negro and the Constitution,” without text or notes. Martin followed his father by attending Morehouse College, the favored institution of higher education for middle class blacks.

He decided on the ministry around the age of 19, entering Crozer Theological Seminary, Chester, Pennsylvania, for a three-year program. A talk by Howard University President Mordecai Johnson aroused his interest in the nonviolent methods used by Mohandas K. Gandhi. After graduating from Crozier with distinction, he pursued doctoral studies at Boston University’s School of Theology. There he embraced a religious version of individualism known as “personalism.”  Biographer David J. Garrow reported this meant “the human personality, i.e. all individual persons, was the ultimate intrinsic value in the world. Some of King’s own strong attraction to that philosophy was rooted in one of its major corollaries: if the dignity and worth of all human personalities was the ultimate value in the world, racial segregation and discrimination were among the ultimate evils.”

While he was Boston, he was introduced to Alabama-born Coretta Scott who had graduated from Ohio’s Antioch College and gone on to the New England Conservatory of Music. “This little man, who was so short,” she reflected, “I looked at him and thought to myself, ‘He doesn’t look like much.’”  Daddy King presided at their wedding, June 1953, in her parents’ Perry County, Alabama home. The couple returned to Boston, and he earned his Ph.D. in June 1955.

Daddy King wanted him to become co-pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, but Dr. King cherished his independence. He accepted a position at Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In August 1955, Dr. King spoke at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and he was subsequently asked to serve on their executive committee.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing over government-enforced racial segregation. The laws had been passed during the early 20th century, despite the objections of private businesses that such laws would raise their costs and alienate customers. As Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell noted: “laws were necessary to get racial prejudice translated into pervasive discrimination, because the forces of the marketplace operated in the opposite direction. Prejudice is free but discrimination has costs.

Down South, explained Harvard University historian Stephan Thernstrom and Manhattan Institute Fellow Abigail Thernstrom in their book America in Black and White (1997): “The races were strictly separated by law on streetcars, buses, and railroads; in schools; in waiting rooms, restaurants, hotels, boarding houses, theaters, cemeteries, parks, courtrooms, public toilets, drinking fountains, and every other public space. The mania for separation went to such lengths that Oklahoma required separate telephone booths for the two races…Macon County, Georgia, took the prize for absurdity by seriously debating a proposal that the county maintain two separate sets of public roads, one for each race, and rejecting the idea only because of the prohibitive cost.”

A Montgomery ordinance required that blacks give up their seats when whites needed seats. In many cases, blacks — especially women — were told to pay their fare at the front of the bus, then leave the bus and re-enter at the back door, only to see the bus drive away.

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks, who worked as a tailor’s assistant and helped out at the NAACP Youth Council, boarded a bus at Court Square, Montgomery. Driver J.F. Blake ordered blacks to the back of the bus, but Parks refused. She was tired. Blake stopped the bus, went to a telephone and called the police. They escorted Parks to jail. A woman on the bus got word to E.D. Nixon of the NAACP. Nixon, accompanied by white attorney Clifford Dorr, signed bond papers and secured the release of Mrs. Parks.

Nixon lined up the support of black ministers. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and chose Dr. King as the first president, because his education and public speaking ability would appeal to sophisticated blacks as well as ordinary folks.  Dr. King explained: “We are not advocating violence…the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”  Dr. King was surprisingly moderate in his demands: “We are not asking for an end to segregation. That’s a matter for the legislature and the courts….All we are seeking is justice and fair treatment in riding the buses.”

Montgomery mayor W.A. Gayle blamed the boycott on “Negro radicals” and wouldn’t make any concessions. The Montgomery Improvement Association set up a volunteer carpool for getting boycotters to work. City officials threatened to arrest drivers if they charged bus boycotters less than the government-mandated minimum 45-cent taxi fare. State Judge Eugene W. Carter issued an injunction barring the MIA’s carpool as an infringement of the government-granted bus monopoly franchise, and the resourceful MIA organized a “share a ride” program. A grand jury indicted more than 90 MIA members for violating the state anti-boycott law. Dr. King, the first of the boycotters on trial, was ordered to pay $1,000. A bomb exploded in front of the parsonage where Dr. King’s family lived, shattering windows and filling the place with smoke. In weekly mass meetings, Dr. King referred to Gandhi’s long-term strategy of nonviolence.

In June 1956, a federal court voted 2-1 to strike down the Montgomery bus segregation ordinance, and later that year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this decision. On December 21, 1956, at 5:55 AM, the first bus of the day stopped near Dr. King’s home. He was the first one on board, accompanied by Ralph Abernathy, E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks and Glenn Smiley, a white supporter from Texas.

Things seemed to go well until December 23rd when a shotgun blasted through Dr. King’s front door. Five days later, snipers shot at three desegregated buses. One black rider was wounded. On January 27, 1957, twelve sticks of dynamite with a burned-out fuse were found on the porch of Dr. King’s home. Eight months later, he was in Harlem’s Blumstein’s department store, promoting his book Stride Toward Freedom, the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, when a deranged black woman pulled out a seven-inch letter opener and plunged it into his chest. It missed his heart by a fraction of an inch. 

To promote a broader civil rights movement, Dr. King helped organize a May 17th “Washington Pilgrimage” which climaxed with an estimated 15,000 people gathering at the Lincoln Memorial. Ebony magazine rated Dr. King “the No. 1 Negro leader of men.”  He helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an Atlanta-based organization whose primary mission was to register black voters. On Labor Day 1957, Dr. King and Abernathy attended the Highlander Folk School (Tennessee) and heard banjo-playing Pete Seeger sing “We Shall Overcome” which became the anthem of the civil rights movement.

The next phase of the civil rights movement began in February 1960 when four black students at North Carolina A & M College tried to get served at a Greensboro F.W. Woolworth whites-only lunch counter. Denied service, the students refused to leave. Dozens more students showed up, and the lunch counter closed. Soon there were “sit-in” protests throughout North Carolina. Then sit-ins spread to South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Tennessee. Sit-ins became the specialty of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dr. King, who by this time had resigned from Dexter and become co-pastor with Daddy King at Ebenezer Baptist Church, addressed a rally of sit-in demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina. 

Then two sheriffs arrested him and sought his extradition to Alabama where he faced charges of perjury and felony for his Alabama state tax returns. Tax collectors claimed that in 1956 and 1958, he had earned a total of $27,000 more than the roughly $5,000 in pastor’s salary and $4,100 in speaking fees which he had reported. A conviction would ruin his reputation. Five lawyers considered Dr. King’s prospects bleak, but analysis of his financial records showed he earned only $368 more than reported. On May 28th, a jury of 12 white men returned a not-guilty verdict. Many observers thought he had been singled out for harassment. 

On October 12, 1960, Dr. King joined sit-ins at Rich’s department store, Atlanta, and he was arrested for violating an anti-trespass law. Because he had previously been ticketed for driving a borrowed car with expired plates and for failing to get a Georgia license within 90 days after having moved into the state (he still had an Alabama license), he was sentenced to four months in Georgia state prison. 

A man punched Dr. King in the face while he was addressing SCLC’s September 1962 convention in Birmingham. Dr. King remained at the podium, and the man hit him again and again. Rather than turn away, Dr. King spoke calmly to the man who turned out to be Roy James, a 24-year-old member of the American Nazi Party. Police arrived, but Dr. King declined to press charges. The episode, noted biographer David J. Garrow, “left most onlookers stunned and impressed by Dr. King’s lack of fear when confronted by direct physical violence.”

Dr. King turned his attention to Birmingham, one of the most hard-core segregationist cities. For years, black homes had been dynamited, and police never solved the cases. One black neighborhood was referred to as “Dynamite Hill.”  While there weren’t enough registered black voters to have an impact, black customers were important to local businesses. Dr. King’s principal objectives in Birmingham: desegregate facilities in stores, such as bathrooms and changing rooms; establish color-blind hiring practices by the stores as well as the government; reopen taxpayer-financed recreation facilities.

State Supreme Court Judge William A. Jenkins, Jr. issued an injunction against marches. Dr. King led a Good Friday march toward City Hall and was jailed. Wyatt Walker, a minister working with Dr. King, recruited hundreds of black high school students to march toward City Hall, and they were jailed. Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor had high pressure water hoses turned on the marchers and bystanders. Police dogs went on the attack. Police chased demonstrators with clubs. When a settlement was finally reached, Dr. King praised the white merchants with whom they had negotiated and announced a voter registration drive in Birmingham. The evening after he spoke, the Ku Klux Klan held a meeting near Birmingham, and a bomb exploded under the room where Dr. King had stayed at the Gaston Motel.

Focused on restricting the power of Southern governments which had done so much to subvert civil liberties, Dr. King sought ways to generate support for a civil rights bill before Congress. The result was the March on Washington, set for Thursday, August 28, 1963, sponsored by Dr. King, Wilkins, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, John Lewis of SNCC, Andrew Young of SCLC and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Bayard Rustin was the principal organizer.

“I have a dream,” Dr. King told the crowd, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…When we allow freedom to ring…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”

Great speech, bad bill. Signed into law by Lyndon Johnson who became president after presidency Kennedy’s assassination, the Civil Rights Act went beyond striking down laws maintaining compulsory segregation. The Civil Rights Act established the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission which was empowered to suppress any voluntary association deemed discriminatory. Considering the barbarism of Southern state and municipal governments, it was understandable that Dr. King would seek a federal remedy. Yet expanding government power has always been dangerous for minorities who, because of their comparatively small numbers, couldn’t count on controlling it – as had been the case in the South.

Dr. King went on to help blacks secure the right to vote, so they would be better protected from politicians and bureaucrats. “The problem in the South,” explained then Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, “was primarily the problem of the literacy tests and the way in which they were administered. You had black Ph.D.’s who couldn’t pass a literacy test and you had whites who could barely write their name who had no problem being registered to vote.” 

The issue came to a head in Selma, Alabama  It was a town of about 29,000 people, and only about 2% of voting-age black people were registered to vote. In February and March 1965, Dr. King led demonstrations for voting rights. Sheriff Jim Clark’s men punched demonstrators, beat them with billyclubs and jolted them with electric cattle prods. More than 4,000 people were arrested, and Dr. King was jailed. He wrote “A Letter from Martin Luther King from a Selma, Alabama Jail,” which appeared as a New York Times advertisement and attracted national attention. More than 25,000 people joined a march from Selma to Montgomery. They were attacked by Clark’s men and shot at by snipers, but they reached Montgomery, and Dr. King addressed the multitude gathered at the capitol building. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Dr. King courageously opposed the Vietnam War. He denounced conscription as “involuntary servitude.”  He expressed some disillusionment with political power. “No president has really done very much for the American Negro,” he lamented, “though the past two presidents have received much undeserved credit for helping us. This credit has accrued to Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy only because it was during their administration that Negroes began doing more for themselves.”

Yet Dr. King had the mistaken idea that more speeches, marches and laws could somehow get rid of poverty. He went to Chicago and demanded that local officials “end slums,” housing discrimination and high-rise housing projects, but this got him nowhere. He didn’t seem to realize that government programs are driven by the self-interest of those in power, not the interest of the people supposedly being served.

He tried launching a “Poor People’s Campaign” in Memphis, but it turned into a riot. At about 6:01 P.M. on Thursday, April 4th, in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King stepped onto the balcony. There was a shot. A bullet blew away a piece of his jaw as big as a man’s fist, then severed his spinal cord, ripped through his chest and came to rest in his back. He slumped to the balcony floor. An ambulance took him to St. Joseph’s Hospital. The general surgeon, neurosurgeon, chest surgeon, lung specialist and kidney specialist tried various emergency measures, but his heart gave out. Official time of death was 7:11 P.M.

Ebenezer Baptist Church was packed for the Tuesday, April 9th funeral service, as Daddy King preached over his son’s casket. Then it was placed on a flat-bed farm wagon and drawn by two mules three and a half miles through the streets of Atlanta to Morehouse College, as an estimated 50,000 people paid their respects. At Morehouse, there was a two-hour memorial service. Dr. King was buried at South View Cemetery under a marble monument inscribed, “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, I’m Free at Last.”

The FBI launched what was described as the most intensive manhunt in U.S. history — some 1,500 FBI agents were assigned to the case, and altogether about 3,000 worked on various aspects of it. Investigators identified the prime suspect as escaped convict James Earl Ray and followed his trail to London. He was apprehended en route to white supremacist Rhodesia. He confessed and was sentenced to 99 years in Tennessee State Prison.

Since then, “Civil rights” leaders have abandoned the dream of equal rights and behaved like every other interest group, seeking special favors. They promoted affirmative action for blacks who never were slaves at the expense of whites, Hispanics, Asians and others who never owned slaves, provoking resentment and conflict.  Moreover, noted Thomas Sowell, “It is an often cited statistic that the number of blacks in professional and other high-level occupations increased significantly in the years following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it is an almost totally ignored fact that the number of blacks in such professions increased even more rapidly in the years preceding passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”  Dramatic early gains occurred as Southern blacks helped themselves by migrating North. No wonder more people are returning to Dr. King’s original vision of equal rights.

With courage and goodwill, Martin Luther King, Jr. reaffirmed the vision of a “higher law,” the idea that government laws must be judged by moral standards, a bedrock for liberty going back more than 2,000 years.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.