By 1966, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had achieved substantial success in the civil rights struggle.  The violence and abuse black and white civil rights advocates had suffered at the hands of white southerners during the protest summers of 1961 and 1964 had raised national awareness of the persistent inequities of southern society.  The March on Washington in 1963 had introduced a wide audience of Americans to the civil rights movement’s vision for an integrated America.  The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were the federal government’s response to this grassroots effort; under these laws, no longer could states ignore black citizens’ rights and protections as codified in the 14th and 15th Amendments.  De jure integration and equality had been achieved.

And yet, many white Americans vehemently resisted social reform, making de facto racism a continuing reality.  Black Americans still struggled against social and economic oppression in the form of lower wages, unemployment, poor housing, and insufficient access to educational opportunities.  In the face of such persistent inequality, many black Americans began to question Dr. King’s methods and goals.  Black nationalism, with its embrace of self-defense and black self-determination, was appealing. 

First printed in the October 1966 edition of Ebony, this essay is Dr. King’s response to the assertions of black nationalists.  Refuting the need to meet physical aggression with self-defense, King renewed his call for nonviolent resistance. His passionate argument for a “beloved community” of white and black Americans echoes the aspirations of his “I Have a Dream” speech and challenges the creation of self-sufficient and independent black communities.   As you read, note the various ways in which Dr. King promotes his vision of America while subtly discrediting the fledgling Black Power movement.

Source: “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986), 54-61.

… I am convinced that for practical as well as moral reasons, nonviolence offers the only road to freedom for my people. …

This is no time for romantic illusions about freedom and empty philosophical debate. This is a time for action. What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program which will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement.

The Question of Self-Defense

There are many people who very honestly raise the question of self-defense. This must be placed in perspective. … [I]t is extremely dangerous to organize a movement around self-defense. The line between defensive violence and aggressive or retaliatory violence is a fine line indeed. When violence is tolerated even as a means of self-defense there is a grave danger that in the fervor of emotion the main fight will be lost over the question of self-defense.

…Violence, even in self-defense, creates more problems than it solves. Only a refusal to hate or kill can put an end to the chain of violence in the world and lead us toward a community where men can live together without fear. Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.

Strategy for Change

The American racial revolution has been a revolution to “get in” rather than to overthrow. We want to share in the American economy, the housing market, the educational system and the social opportunities. The goal itself indicates that a social change in America must be nonviolent.

…The nonviolent strategy has been to dramatize the evils of our society in such a way that pressure is brought to bear against those evils by the forces of good will in the community and change is produced.

…So far, we have had the Constitution backing most of the demands for change, and this has made our work easier, since we could be sure that the federal courts would usually back up our demonstrations legally. Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights.

.…There is no easy way to create a world where men and women can live together, where each has his own job and house and where all children receive as much education as their minds can absorb. But if such a world is created in our lifetime, it will be done in the United States by Negroes and white people of good will. It will be accomplished by persons who have the courage to put an end to suffering by willingly suffering themselves rather than inflict suffering upon others. It will be done by rejecting the racism, materialism and violence that has characterized Western civilization and especially by working toward a world of brotherhood, cooperation and peace.

Study Questions

  1. Dr. King distinguishes between constitutional rights and human rights.  What is the actual difference between those two sets of rights?  From what authority does each derive?  Why is the shift from a fight regarding constitutional rights to a fight about the recognition of human rights so fraught with difficulty in the United States in the 1960s?
  2. Compare Dr. King’s ideas about non-violence with this passage from  Malcolm X’s speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet:” 

. . . I don’t mean go out and get violent; but at the same time you should never be nonviolent unless you run into some nonviolence. I’m nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me. . . . And that’s the way every Negro should get. Any time you know you’re within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don’t die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality. . . .

 Does Dr. King adequately refute Malcolm X’s argument?  What passages from each speech support your opinion?