In 1956, after journalist William Worthy nearly sat on a loaded gun in an armchair in Martin Luther King Jr.’s house during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he could hardly know that his report on the incident would become a mere footnote in King’s journey to nonviolence. Much like Worthy’s discovery of King’s weapon, I stumbled onto this anecdote quite by accident. The story provides a lens of nuance and complexity into the life of a man who has transcended into legend. King believed in nonviolence, but he did not start there; his moral suasion helped change the way we perceive nonviolent protest, but he abandoned it in the end.
Perhaps it is the fault of revisionist history that time has seen the removal of teeth from King’s philosophy of love and nonviolence. But such a commitment to love must, by necessity, leave one vulnerable—it becomes both strength and weakness. King’s use of moral suasion did work for a time on white moderates who pushed through legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but it had a limited shelf life. Although he professed love for both oppressed and oppressor alike, he was still hated by some and eventually martyred.
In order to evaluate what King’s stance of nonviolence has contributed to our current view of protest (especially black protest), it bears noting that the concept of his nonviolence has been distorted and flattened. Certainly, King was a minister and an intellectual who believed in nonviolence as a personal philosophy against doing harm to other human beings. He extended this belief to a strategy of nonviolent direct action to effect social change.