One of the most moving stories in the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., happened one afternoon in 1967, when a childhood friend, Howard Baugh, stopped by to visit the great man at his home and complain about his sudden stand against the Vietnam War.
“Why are you speaking out against the war?” he asked. Civil rights and peace don’t mix — that was the common wisdom of the day. “You’re wrecking everything!” That was the growing complaint in the movement.
“When I speak about nonviolence,” Martin explained patiently, “I mean nonviolent all the way.”
As David Garrow reports in “Bearing the Cross,” King went on, “Never could I advocate nonviolence in this country and not advocate nonviolence for the whole world. That’s my philosophy. I don’t believe in death and killing on any side, no matter who’s heading it up — whether it be America or any other country.”
“Nonviolence is my stand and I’ll die for that stand,” King said.
At that moment, Howard Baugh later said, “I understood for the first time in my life what was meant by nonviolence.”
A few months later King was dead. But up until the very end, he tried to teach everyone the wisdom of nonviolence. That night on April 3, 1968, before some 15,000 people in Memphis, he pleaded that we all embrace nonviolence as a way of life, and that we welcome all the social, economic, political and spiritual implications of nonviolence, or we will face the consequences of our global violence.
Standing before the packed crowd at the Mason Temple in Memphis the night before his death, King summed up our predicament: “The choice before us is no longer violence or nonviolence. It’s nonviolence or non-existence.”
I think this is where we stand today, and this is also the key to understanding Dr. King — that he was committed to active, organized nonviolence at every level for positive social change. Like his childhood friend, I think we’ve all missed his point. Even though we know the story of King, and we’ve honored him all our lives, we still can’t comprehend what he means when he says “nonviolence all the way” — nonviolence at every level, at every point, in every crisis — in other words, total nonviolence. Like his childhood friend, King is still patiently inviting us to take on his vision of total nonviolence with all its social, economic, political and spiritual implications.
King’s nonviolence would entail responding to violence at every personal, national and global level with active, positive nonviolent action.
King called for nonviolence as the solution toward every issue, every crisis, every problem. If we want to honor him, we need to heed his call to total nonviolence and start teaching it and practicing as well.
Climate change, nuclear war, corporate greed, racism, systemic poverty, government corruption — the unprecedented systemic violence of our world proves his point. Violence has not only failed, it has brought us ever closer to non-existence, as King promised.
King’s nonviolence would entail responding to violence at every personal, national and global level with active, positive nonviolent action. So, for example, it would mean being nonviolent toward Iran, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and all those engaged in war on the planet, through nonviolent solutions such as dialogue and negotiation.
It would mean responding to the pressing issues of the day from a new Kingian vision of nonviolence. In response to capital crime, we would abolish capital punishment with all its inequalities and seek rehabilitation. In the face of the ongoing killings and massacres, nonviolence would seek strict hand gun control for a radical decrease in the possession and use of handguns. In the face of the threat of nuclear war, nonviolence requires a global commitment toward the abolition of nuclear weapons so that we could start a new era in history when people would no longer fear the threat of nuclear annihilation.
In the face of catastrophic climate change, nonviolence summons us toward a entirely new strategy of nonviolence toward Mother Earth and her creatures, which would mean no more fracking, no more drilling for oil, no more mining, and no more violence toward creation. This consistent nonviolence would also require toward nonviolence toward the poor and oppressed, and government policies that outlaw corruption and greed and institutionalize social, economic and racial justice. Live and let live would become the new norm.
A few years ago, Pace e Bene started the Nonviolent Cities Project as a way to take King’s vision to another level, to help entire cities become nonviolent. Based on the ground-breaking work of Carbondale, Illinois, the Nonviolent Cities project aims to help communities connect the dots between every form of violence, and work to fight poverty, racism, handgun violence, as well as local involvement with militarism and environmental destruction, while also teaching every student in the community about nonviolent living; having every religious institution preach nonviolence; training local police in nonviolent conflict resolution; and helping everyone to see violence as a society-wide health problem, so that nonviolent living might become our common vision and practice.
We launched the Nonviolent Cities project as a new way to engage King’s vision and bring his nonviolence to the grassroots level. Today over 20 cities are experimenting with this vision in an effort to apply King’s vision and methodology of consistent nonviolence to their communities.
King’s childhood friend didn’t understand when he spoke of nonviolence, and he knew King since he was a boy. I hope we can all open our minds and hearts to hear King’s call for total nonviolence all over again, that we might get past the culture’s violence, see with the vision of nonviolence, dare to embrace its universal implications and go forward in hope toward a new culture of nonviolence.
For further information, listen to John’s latest Peace Podcast about Dr. King.
Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.