Many people know of Martin Luther King, Jr., as a champion of nonviolence. This was not new to African American churches.
William D. Watley said King’s theological and ethical perspective, including the belief in nonviolence, “was founded on the bedrock of black religion and then shaped by his formal theological education.”
King’s first speech of the Montgomery bus boycott illustrates that the principle he espoused was not rooted in a secular or non-Christian philosophy. He did not use the word “nonviolence” in the speech, but he eschewed violence from of distinctly Christian perspective. King said:
And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. I want it to be known throughout Montgomery and throughout this nation that we are Christian people. We believe in the Christian religion. We believe in the teachings of Jesus.
King biographer David J. Garrow said: “There are no references to nonviolence, to Gandhi or Thoreau, or to any abstract intellectual traditions,” in the first boycott speech. “Instead, King’s stress is upon the Christian — the Christian Mrs. Parks, the Christian people of Montgomery, the Christian religion and faith.”
King eventually set forth six “basic aspects” of the philosophy of nonviolence in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, about the boycott.
1) Nonviolent resistance is “not a method for cowards; it does resist.”
2) It “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
3) The “attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”
4) Nonviolent resistance includes a “willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back.”
5) It “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.”
6) It is “based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future.”
King honed his ethic of nonviolence through the various crises of the civil rights movement — Montgomery, Albany, Birmingham, and Selma. The nonviolent nature of King’s efforts also helped gain support for the movement among whites. Peter J. Paris wrote:
While the Martin Luther King, Jr., movement sought white financial support throughout its history, his was the first mass movement among blacks that succeeded in getting large numbers of whites (especially church people) existentially involved as participants for racial justice in the activities of direct nonviolent resistance.
(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists web site.)