Why Martin Luther King’s pledge of nonviolence matters today

Bill Hudson's image of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by dogs was published in The New York Times on May 4, 1963. (Wikipedia)

Bill Hudson’s image of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by dogs in Birmingham, Alabama was published in The New York Times on May 4, 1963. (Wikipedia)

Alycee Lane believes that the same spirit that guided Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work can be awakened within us. And it can be found in a pledge. Not just any pledge. It’s a pledge that in the climax of the 1960s African American freedom struggle in Alabama included clear instructions, not just for how to behave in deed alone, but it goes further, asking volunteers to cultivate nonviolence in thought and word, too — in all of one’s relationships, even toward opponents. It’s the Kingian ideal. Author of “Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace,” Lane translates the often overlooked pledge card for a contemporary audience, emphasizing the power of nonviolence as a practice in the spirit of King’s vision. I had the opportunity to ask her some questions for deeper reflection.

Most nonviolence pledges ask us to refrain from violence. What else was included the 1963 Birmingham campaign pledge?

The Birmingham campaign pledge was a commitment card that, according to Martin Luther King, all volunteers were “required” to sign in order to participate in the movement. I came across the pledge in King’s work, “Why We Can’t Wait,” a book in which he talks about the Birmingham campaign. The card consisted of ten commandments, including: “1) meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. 2) remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory. 3) walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love. 4) pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free. 5) sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free. 6) observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. 7) seek to perform regular service for others and for the world. 8) refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart. 9) strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health. 10) follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.”

Why is this pledge significant?

The significance of this pledge is that, first of all, it secured volunteers’ promise that they would protest nonviolently. In this way, the pledge helped organizers — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, or ACMHR — to screen out those unwilling to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.

But as I argue in my book, the pledge had an even deeper significance. With its emphasis on the importance of taking up a daily practice of (for example) courtesy, love, service, meditation and prayer, the pledge really offered to volunteers an opportunity to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. The commandments in effect constitute a daily practice of nonviolence, and as such, it conveys that nonviolent direct action is not merely or solely public protest and organizing. It is also (and perhaps more importantly) speaking, thinking, acting and engaging the world — even at the most mundane level — from an ethic of nonviolence, so that we actually become nonviolence.

The pledge thus disavows what Leela Fernandes in “Transforming Feminist Practice” calls the public/private split in political activism. It offers a notion of activism that “is not stunted by the illusory distinctions between the means we use and the ends we seek, between the public and the private, the spiritual and the material, the dailiness of our everyday lives and the grander actions that we classify as social activism.” To live nonviolence purposely — to meditate, to seek justice and reconciliation, to walk and talk in the manner of love, to care for our bodies, to practice courtesy — is activism at its best. And it infuses our “grander actions” with tremendous power.

Did the volunteers in King’s day take the pledge to heart? How can you prove that?

Now, I don’t know to what extent (if at all) the Birmingham campaign volunteers took the pledge to heart and practiced nonviolence on a daily basis. Moreover, I suspect that, given the exigencies of the campaign, the idea of nonviolence as a way of life was not one that organizers really drove home. But that’s ultimately of no matter; through the pledge, SCLC and ACMHR opened a door that I think we must walk through given the myriad crises we face today — endless war, domestic and international terrorism, growing economic and social inequality, climate change, factionalism across multiple political and social identities.

What do you hope to achieve by reexamining and reinterpreting the pledge?

nonvioWell, first of all, I should say that through my examination of the pledge, I offer what I hope will force us to redefine what we mean by “activist” and to undo the “illusory distinctions” between the public and private that Fernandes talks about. To the degree that activated people reify the public/private split is, I think, the degree to which the pledge is relevant.

Having said that, in “Nonviolence Now!” I examine the original pledge, situate it within the context of the Birmingham campaign, and then offer secular versions as daily practices of nonviolence that we can all take on. For example, I truncate the first commitment from “Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus” to “Meditate daily.” I also offer five new commitments that I think capture the spirit of the campaign and carry us in this 21st century moment: Practice Forgiveness; Extend Compassion, Love, and Kindness to Those Who Express and Act with Ill Will; Reestablish a Connection to Earth; Strive to Be in Good Bodily Health; Cultivate Hope.

Do you see any strategic value in working nonviolence into our daily lives for any contemporary struggles? What does that look like?

Yes. It is strategic, I think, for those who are activated to choose not to emulate the very people whom we hope to disarm, to refuse to exchange tit for tat, to withdraw our cooperation with and complicity in creating our culture of violence. It is strategic to demonstrate by word and deed that there is another way to walk in this world and to engage others. It is strategic, in other words, to disarm ourselves and one another just as surely as it is to disarm the state.

It saddens me when folk who are doing righteous work to confront, say, police brutality or economic inequality or environmental exploitation, express the kind of venom they themselves receive because of the work that they do. It saddens me when I say belittling and dehumanizing things about folks with whom I disagree. In those moments, we become allies in nurturing an atmosphere of conflict, hate and violence. We also reveal the extent to which our emotional and spiritual lives have been colonized.

So to change the tone and to organize, with great intention, from a commitment to living nonviolence is a strategic decision to turn ourselves, our communities, our nation and the world inside-out and to offer something radically different. What might this look like? I don’t know, but what comes to mind is a story Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh tells about Vietnamese refugees who escape danger by boat to safer shores. As the passengers on the boat become afraid and panicked in the face of sickness, the sea’s hazards and other perils, the willingness of one to demonstrate and embody fearlessness, compassion, and quiet strength helped everyone to calm and to have hope. The hazards they faced didn’t disappear, nor did the possibility of violence and death. What left, however, was fear, and in its stead came cooperation, fortitude and a willingness to go on, come what may. Ultimately, they all survived.

We can ground ourselves in compassion, care and nonviolence as we organize and try to change the world — and thus signal to others that there is absolutely nothing that can defeat us, come what may — or we can ground ourselves in the chaos, fear, and hate around us — and thus signal that we are already defeated.

What message do you want people to get from your book?

We continue to be faced with the choice of “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation,” as King observed in his speech on the Vietnam War. We have raised generations in a culture of violence. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, “ours is a war culture, our economy a war economy, and our democracy a war democracy.” But the chickens are coming home to roost, for the violence we commit in the name of our democracy or free markets or American exceptionalism is violence we have turned “into ourselves,” to borrow Allen Aubrey Boesak’s phrasing. We are armed to the teeth and armed against each other. In the process, we have even turned violence itself “into a good cause.”

So, it has become even more urgent for us to choose and to recognize that we have an opportunity to make this nation one that defines strength, power and leadership not in terms of our weapons or the wealth we produce at the expense of the poor, of natural resources, and of other sentient beings, but instead in terms of our willingness to lay down our arms and make nonviolence the foundation of our politics, economy, and social relations. Why not be great because we choose nonviolence?

But to get to that place, we have to practice nonviolence. We can’t do it on the cheap; we can’t think that we can radically change institutions and structures of subordination without changing ourselves as well. We have to be willing to do the labor of practice. And so what I want people to get from my book is that the time to do that labor is now.

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