With the passage of Martin Luther King Day, students nationwide rejoice in a day off from school and adults party on Sunday night for the first time in the new year. And, of course, there are the usual commemorations for the great liberator of blacks in America, Martin Luther King, Jr., who is remembered for his incredible work in advancing equal rights.
His speech on Aug. 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is one of the most well known speeches in recent history. Thanks to him, you can’t say, “I have a dream” without some profound statement to follow.
Followers of King have worked fervently to see his dream come true. He had such an enormous impact on this nation that he was granted a national holiday, one of only four individuals – and the only African American – to have such an honor in this country, and all because he fought for freedom.
King’s method of fighting is now referred to as “civil disobedience,” a term taught parallel to King and the Civil Rights Era. The ’60s were overrun with examples of civil disobedience, and it is now impossible to learn about American history without exploring this area. A high school history course now must include pictures of blacks being hosed down, gunned down and worse.
Following King’s example, it has become perfectly acceptable to employ this tactic of civil disobedience when it comes to gaining civil rights. Today it seems to be a requirement for organizations to hold some kind of rally when they are displeased; some even find it necessary to dress up as Guantanamo Bay prisoners in order to catch the attention of the media and protest the goings-on at said prison (or it could just be an excuse to wear stylish full-body orange suits).
Contrary to popular belief, King has not rested easy in his grave. Of course, some may call this sheer selfishness; after all, he is a martyr. What else could his dead and decayed body want? Well, it doesn’t take a medium to interpret this dead guy’s messages.
In fact, all it takes is a quick glance at King himself. No, I’m not talking about his body. And no, I’m not even talking about his actions. By looking at his actions all these years we have come to only recognize the King who strived for civil rights. There was much more underlying King’s passion for civil disobedience – King was nonviolent.
And what, do you ask, does it mean to be nonviolent? For King, it meant equality for all. It meant not raising a hand, even when the obstructions to justice carried guns. It meant not giving up, no matter how many people refused to see or hear the cries of injustice raised by the black society. Without his commitment to nonviolence, equality would have strayed even further from our grasp.
Nonviolence does not consist solely of civil disobedience. King understood this; even some of his followers understood this. However, over time, we have forgotten this.
The nonviolent active resistance, termed civil disobedience, is just one aspect of nonviolence. It actually represents only a small portion of strategic nonviolence, the belief system advocated by the likes of Gene Sharp. An employer of this strategy has no dedication to nonviolence itself and is only committed because it is a useful means to an end. Principled nonviolence, the belief system held by those like King and Mohandas Gandhi, involves a commitment to nonviolence because it is morally right.
To me, King’s greatness stemmed from his beliefs, from his ability to see the good in and to love even those who fought against him. I may not have found out yet what it means to be nonviolent. How could I expect to, when I still see love through the eyes of a college student?
Now, with King’s very own country setting an example for the world with the largest military campaign of the new millennium, it is especially important to remember King’s beliefs and to remember that what made him great was standing up to such injustices.
Epstein is a member of the class of 2010.