Philosophy Ripped From The Headlines!, Issue #16, 4 (January 2019): Martin Luther King Jr on Nonviolence and Social Change, and King’s Dangerous Radicalism.

By Hugh Reginald


1. “Nonviolence and Social Change”

By Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King Jr at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963. Rowland Scherman / US National Archives and Records Administration
Excerpted from The Radical King by Martin Luther King Jr, edited and introduced by Cornel West (Beacon Press, 2014).


2. “When King Was Dangerous”

By Alex Gourevitch

Martin Luther King Jr’s mugshot in Birmingham, 1963. Wikimedia Commons

Project Confrontation

When King arrived in Birmingham in March 1963, he was full of doubts and the movement was sputtering. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56 had nearly been defeated, saved mainly by a Supreme Court decision declaring segregated busing unconstitutional. During the 1961–62 desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia, King’s plans were so circumscribed by court orders and mass arrests that his movement beat a reluctant retreat. No serious civil rights legislation was in the offing. The segregation of everything in the South, from water fountains and pools to elevators, buses, and schools, remained more or less intact. Challenges to King’s leadership grew.

Martin Luther King Jr in 1965. Library of Congress

The Injunction Problem

Beyond its practical challenges, the injunction posed a political and philosophical problem for King. King didn’t have any problem breaking the law. Quite the opposite. “The doctrine of legal change had become the doctrine of slow token change” was King’s mantra in the post–Brown v Board of Education world — change would have to come through illegal acts. But while King was willing to violate the law, he hadn’t been willing to challenge the rule of law or the courts and government authority that sustained that rule.

From Civil Disobedience to Something More

On the Thursday night that the civil rights leaders received the Birmingham injunction, everyone (save for the radical Shuttlesworth) counseled against violating the order: they just couldn’t afford the long prison sentences and fines. Somebody phoned Harry Belafonte to start raising more money. They debated late into the night and continued the next morning.

Walker v. Birmingham

The immediate reaction was mass arrests, which quickly turned into a series of court cases. When these challenges finally started arriving at the Supreme Court, in 1967, they presented a problem for the justices. In prior civil disobedience cases, the Court had ruled that if the underlying city ordinance or segregation statute was unconstitutional, violating those laws was no crime. Two years later, in 1969, the Court would hold that the act of marching without a permit in Birmingham was not illegal, since the permit law was unconstitutionally vague and enforced in a racially discriminatory fashion.

From King to Debs

To find a “firmly established precedent” in Walker, the Court reached back nearly fifty years to a little-known 1922 case called Howat v. Kansas. Alexander Howat was an anarcho-syndicalist who led an illegal wildcat strike in Kansas against a mining company. Facing an injunction, Howat and the miners stayed on strike. They didn’t bother to appeal the order. “In Howat’s view,” historian James Pope writes, “courts, legislatures, and corporations had ‘joined together to chain men to their jobs and crush the life out of organized labor of the entire country.’”

Eugene Debs in 1912. Library of Congress

King Today

King’s connection to the radical wing of the labor movement was not just a matter of the precedent on which he was convicted. At the very moment that Justice Stewart and the Walker Court were reaching backward, to the history of labor repression, to send King to jail, King was looking forward, to rehabilitate some of the labor movement’s historic tactics.


3. Some Follow-Up Thoughts For Further Reflection and Discussion:

Is the following argument sound? If so, why? If not, why not?

  1. Violence with respect to people is rarely if ever rationally or morally justified; indeed, except in last-resort cases of self-defense against violent attack or in order to protect the innocent from violent attack, universal nonviolence with respect to people is rationally justified and morally obligatory.
  2. Nevertheless, sometimes it is not only permissible, but even rationally justified and morally obligatory, to be nonviolent with respect to people yet also violent with respect to private property, if the relevant private property represents a basic and widespread source of violations of respect for universal human dignity–for example, if it’s private property owned by big-capitalist conglomerates or corporations, that expresses and implements an inherently oppressive social system, such as the symbiotic combination of racism, big capitalism, and the coercive authoritarianism of the State (e.g., of the police and the legal justice system of mass incarceration)–and the purpose of the violence with respect private property of this kind is solely to change this inherently oppressive social system into something fundamentally better, in that it sufficiently respects universal human dignity.
  3. Martin Luther King Jr (henceforth MLK), argues that massive nonviolent (with respect to people) civil disobedience is required in order to effect fundamental social change for the better in inherently oppressive social systems, and also that this nonviolent civil disobedience can include “direct action” such as the disruption of the daily operations of the inherently oppressive symbiotic social system of racism, big capitalism, and the coercive authoritarianism of the State, perhaps even including violence with respect to private property owned by big-capitalist conglomerates or corporations.
  4. Although MLK does not explicitly draw this distinction, there is nevertheless a basic difference between (i) coercion, which is either (ia) imposing or threatening to impose violence on people or (ib) imposing or threatening to impose salient although nonviolent harms on people, in order to compel those people to do various things, or heed various commands or demands, in order to bring about egoistic or publicly beneficial ends of the coercer, (ii) noncoercion, which is the refusal to engage in coercion.
  5. Since coercion treats other people as mere means or mere things, and not as persons with dignity, it violates sufficient respect for human dignity; hence all coercion is rationally unjustified and immoral, even if it is beneficial for many people.
  6. So only nonviolent (with respect to people), noncoercive civil disobedience is rationally justified and morally acceptable for the purposes of effecting fundamental social change for the better in inherently oppressive social systems, and only nonviolent (with respect to people), noncoercive civil disobedient “direct action” or “disruption” is fully consistent with MLK’s overall moral and political philosophy.
  7. Therefore, although MLK was a serious radical–indeed, he was an anarcho-socialist, since political anarchism is just a generalization of civil disobedience which says that we’re always permitted or obligated to disobey the coercive authoritarian commands of the State whenever those commands are rationally unjustified and immoral, hence the State as such, as inherently coercive and authoritarian, has no genuine rational and moral legitimacy–he was not a dangerous radical, except insofar as he peacefully but also rebelliously challenged the oppression of racists, big capitalists, and coercive authoritarian Statists.


4. One Link For Supplementary Reading:

The Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr


This installment of Ripped! can be downloaded HERE:




ISSUE #16, 3 (January 2019):

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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