How Martin Luther King, Jr., brought satyagraha to the U.S. and revolutionized the civil rights movement.
FAR FROM THE police dogs, jail cells, and hostile crowds, Martin Luther King, Jr., stands in his office with his arms crossed in front of a portrait of Mohandas Gandhi. The juxtaposition of these two spiritual titans in this photograph reminds me that Gandhi’s “experiment with truth” was at the heart of King’s work for justice and equality. For King as well as Gandhi, the methods of satyagraha, far from being neutral tools devoid of cultural values, contained precise, challenging blueprints for leading a moral life.
King first publicly declared his admiration for the father of modern India during the Montgomery bus boycott, proclaiming, “Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics.” Those tactics were tested in an American context for the first time during King’s fourteen-year career as the nation’s most preeminent minister and Socratic gadfly of the state. King was at a meeting during the Montgomery bus boycott, when segregationists bombed his house. He rushed back and found his wife Coretta and their baby Yolanda unharmed. Outside his damaged home, an angry, armed black crowd confronted the white policemen at the scene. The situation was edging toward violence when King raised one hand to quiet the crowd. “I want you to go home and put down your weapons,” he said. “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.… We must meet hate with love.” According to the white policemen there that night, King’s calming words in the heat of racial violence saved their lives. King’s use of skillful means (upaya kushala) brought something uniquely redemptive to the struggle for black liberation in America; he established the actions of the Civil Rights movement as morally superior to those of its opposition. However, King never sought to humiliate his opponents. A practitioner of satyagraha endeavors to respect his opponent, retain him as friend, and provide him with a way to save face during their encounter so that he can maintain his dignity and join the ranks of the enlightened.
The electrifying Birmingham, Alabama campaign, infused with the spirit of satyagraha, brought segregation to its knees. “We shall wear you down by our capacity to suffer,” King announced, merging the passion of Christ and Gandhi’s doctrine in his belief that suffering, loss of property, and even physical pain were worthwhile means to a spiritual end. King and his lieutenants filled the jails with peaceful protesters, children as well as adults. 2,500 demonstrators marched on Birmingham’s streets. Racist Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor responded to the nonviolent protests with fire hoses and police dogs. His actions, captured in news footage and broadcast worldwide, backfired by alerting American citizens and the international community to the horrible conditions faced by black people in the South.
This brutality sickened the Birmingham firemen, too. On May 5, 1963, hundreds of blacks held a prayer meeting near the city jail. Enraged, Connor ordered his firemen to turn on the hoses. But the firemen fell back as if mesmerized, some of them weeping, and allowed the protesters to continue. This remarkable event proved yet again the power of satyagraha, or “soul force,” in winning over the hearts and minds of one’s opponents. That victory was surely helped by the ten points of the “Commitment Blank,” a kind of activist’s version of the bodhisattva vows, signed by the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their followers during the Birmingham campaign:
COMMANDMENTS FOR THE VOLUNTEERS
I hereby pledge myself—my person and my body—to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following commandments:
Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.
Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
When practicing soul force, activists were urged to work for change in the world and in themselves simultaneously. These “moral experiments” were intended to be performed in their daily lives as scientists might test their theories. Such an approach is in perfect accord with satyagraha’s insistence that it is futile to implement ideas in the public realm if we fail to practice them in our personal lives. Dharma teacher and mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas understood this well when he said, “As a Buddhist, I cannot think myself into a new way of living, I have to live myself into a new way of thinking.” If we hope to end war and violence, Thomas noted, “we must simply stop the endless wars that rage within.”
BEFORE HIS DEATH at the age of thirty-nine, King would receive fifty assassination threats and the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI; live with a $30,000 bounty on his head; be stabbed, stoned, bombed, and repeatedly arrested and jailed. All this only reinforced King’s conviction that “civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.” In a short space of time, King revolutionized the civil rights movement, and his efforts took a heavy personal toll: after his death, an autopsy found that he had the heart of a sixty-year-old man. Although his life, like Gandhi’s, was cut tragically short, his powerful legacy endures. He reminds nonviolent activists that brotherhood is our goal, love our method, generosity and forgiveness our rule. King summarized the principle of satyagraha in language as simple as the purity of the ideal: “Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” King devoted his life to helping Americans be what we ought.
Charles Johnson is a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle as well as an award-winning author. His most recent book, Mine Eyes Have Seen: Bearing Witness to the Civil Rights Struggle, a collaboration with civil rights photographer Bob Adelman, was published in November 2007.
Image 1: In Atlanta SCLC office, 1966 © Bob Fitch photo
Image 2: © Bettmann/Corbis