Segregation in the South

Black Americans have passed a point of no return in their non-violent struggle against oppression — February 1958

By Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958. Photo by Grey Villet/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Editor’s note: In February 1958, The Observer published this essay about non-violent resistance by Martin Luther King Jr. The 29-year-old Baptist minister from Montgomery, Ala. had risen to global prominence as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott between 1955 and 1956. King narrowly survived a stabbing by a mentally ill woman at a September 1958 book signing. And in 1964, with the civil rights movement peaking, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. less than four years later.

In American life, there is today a real crisis in race relations. This crisis has been precipitated on the one hand, by the determined resistance of reactionary elements in the South to the Supreme Court’s momentous decision against segregation in the public schools. Many states have risen in open defiance. Legislative halls of the South ring loud with such words as “interposition” and “nullification.”

The Ku Klux Klan is on the march again, determined to preserve segregation at any cost. Then, there are the White Citizens’ Councils. All of these forces have conjoined to make for massive resistance.

The crisis has been precipitated on the other hand by the radical change in the negro’s evaluation of himself. There would probably be no crisis in race relations if the Negro accepted injustice and exploitation. But it is at this very point that change has come. For many years, the Negro tacitly accepted segregation. He was the victim of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The system of slavery and segregation caused many Negroes to feel that perhaps they were inferior. This is the ultimate tragedy of segregation. It not only harms one physically, but it injures one spiritually. It scars the soul and distorts the personality. It inflicts the segregator with a false sense of superiority while inflicting the segregated with a false sense of inferiority. But through the forces of history, something happened to the Negro. He came to feel that he was somebody. He came to feel that the important thing about a man is not the colour of his skin or the texture of his hair, but the texture and quality of his soul. With this new sense of dignity and new self-respect, a new Negro emerged. So there has been a revolutionary change in the Negro’s evaluation of his nature and destiny, and a determination to achieve freedom and human dignity.

Long for Freedom

This determination springs from the same deep longing for freedom that motivates oppressed people all over the world. The deep rumblings of discontent from Asia and Africa are, at bottom, a quest for freedom and human dignity on the part of people who have long been the victims of colonialism and imperialism. The struggle for freedom on the part of oppressed people, in general, and the American Negro, in particular, is not suddenly going to disappear. It is sociologically true that privileged classes rarely ever give up their privileges without strong resistance. It is also sociologically true that once oppressed people rise up against their oppression, there is no stopping point short of full freedom. So realism impels us to admit that the struggle will continue until freedom is a reality for all the oppressed peoples of the world.

Since the struggle will continue, the basic question which confronts the oppressed peoples of the world is this: How will the struggle against the forces of injustice be waged?

There are two possible answers. One is to resort to the all too prevalent method of physical violence and corroding hatred. Violence, nevertheless, solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Occasionally, violence is temporarily successful, but never permanently so. It often brings temporary victory, but never permanent peace. If the American Negro and other victims of oppression succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for justice, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and their chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

The non-violent register is just as opposed to the evil against which he is protesting as the person who uses violence.

Alternative to Violence

The alternative to violence is the method of non-violent resistance. This method is nothing more and nothing less than Christianity in action. It seems to me to be the Christian way of life in solving problems of human relations. This method was made famous in our generation by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who used it to free his country from the domination of the British Empire. This method has also been used in Montgomery, Ala., under the leadership of the ministries of all denominations, to free 50,000 Negroes from the long night of bus segregation. Several basic things can be said about non-violence as a method in bringing about better racial conditions.

First, this is not a method of cowardice or stagnant passivity; it does resist. The non-violent register is just as opposed to the evil against which he is protesting as the person who uses violence. It is true that this method is passive or aggressive in the sense that the non-violent resister is aggressive physically toward his opponent, but his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically, but it is strong and active spiritually; it is non-aggressive physically, but dynamically aggressive spiritually.

A second basic fact about this method is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The non-violent resister must often voice his protest through non-co-operation or boycotts, but he realized that non-co-operation and boycotts are not ends within themselves; they are means to awaken a sense of moral shame within the opponent. The aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

A third fact that characterizes the method of non-violence is that the attack is directed to forces of evil, rather than persons caught in the forces. It is evil that we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized with evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. As I like to say to the people in Montgomery, Ala.: “The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory, it will be a victory, not merely for 50,000 Negros, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may happen to be unjust.”

A fourth point that must be brought out concerning the method of non-violence is that this method not only avoids external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. At the centre of non-violence stands the principle of love. In struggling for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in our world. We have learned though the grim realities of life and history that hate and violence solve nothing. They only serve to push us deeper and deeper into the mire. Violence gets violence; hate begets hate; and toughness begets a greater toughness. It is all a descending spiral, and the end is destruction — for everybody. Along the way of life, someone must have enough sense and morality to cut off the chain of hate by projecting the ethic of love into the centre of our lives.

No Sentimental Emotion

In speaking of love, we are not referring to some sentimental and affectionate emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectional sense. Love in this connection means understanding goodwill as expressed in the Greek word agape. This means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men — an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. When we rise to love on the agape level, we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does.

A fifth basic fact about the method of non-violent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is this deep faith in the future that causes the non-violent resister to accept suffering without retaliation. He knows that in his struggle for justice, he has cosmic companionship. Now, I am aware of the fact that there are devout believers in non-violence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for togetherness — a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. There is a creative power in the universe that works to bring low gigantic mountains of evil and pull down prodigious hilltops of injustice. This is the faith that keeps the non-violent resister going through all of the tension and suffering that he must inevitably confront.

Those of us who call the name of Jesus Christ find something at the centre of our faith that forever reminds us that God is on the side of truth and justice. Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately, it must give way to the triumph of Easter. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a Palace and Christ a Cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by His name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in this universe that justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” So in Montgomery, Ala., we can walk and never get weary because we know that there will be a great camp meeting in the promised Land of freedom and justice.

I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. . . . I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.

Greatest Moral Dilemma

I cannot close this article without saying that the problem of race is indeed America’s greatest moral dilemma. The churches are called up to recognize the urgent necessity of taking a forthright stand on this crucial issue. If we are to remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot rest until segregation and discrimination are banished from every area of American life. Many churches have already taken a stand. The National Council of Churches has condemned segregation over and over again, and has requested its constituent denominations to do likewise. Most of the major denominations have endorsed that action. Many individual ministers, even in the South, have stood up with dauntless courage. High tribute and appreciation is due the ninety ministers of Atlanta, Georgia, who so courageously signed the noble statement calling for compliance with the law and a reopening of the channels of communication between the races. All of these things are admirable and deserve our highest praise. But we must admit that these courageous stands from the church are still far too few. The sublime statements of the major denominations on the question of human relations move all too slowly to local churches in actual practice. All too many ministers are still silent. It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people. It may be that our generation will have to repent not only for the diabolical actions and vitriolic words of the children of darkness, but also for the crippling fears and tragic apathy of the children of light.

What we need is a restless determination to make the ideal of brotherhood a reality in this nation and all over the world. There are certain technical words that tend to become stereotypes and clichés after a certain period of time. Psychologists have a word that is probably used more frequently than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” In a sense, all of us must live the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things in our social system to which all of us should be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.

It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted. The challenge to us is to be maladjusted — as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “‘Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream;’ as maladjusted as Lincoln, who had the vision to see this nation could not survive half slave and half free; as maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out in words lifted to cosmic proportions, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness;” as maladjusted as Jesus who could say to the men and women of His generation, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.”

The world is in desperate need of such maladjustment. Through such courageous maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glitter daybreak of freedom and justice.

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