Misconceptions About King’s Methods for Change

by Heather Gray
January 16, 2017
Justice Initiative International

Preface: I first wrote this article in 2005 and it was posted on Counterpunch. I am sending it out again given the challenges we will all likely face with the Trump administration and the need for us all to have clarity on what needs changing in the United States and what is needed to create and maintain a just society for all. It is little known that marching during the civil rights movement in the 1960s was initiated after there was clarity about the demands for change. As is referred to in this article below, not having clarity about your demands can be a matter of life and death when challenging a powerful state.


An unknown Beijing citizen who would come to be known as “Tank Man” stands in front of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace on June 5, 1989, as military clashed with protesters in Tiananmen Square. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters/Newscom)

As the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is celebrated, the popular “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by him in 1963 in Washington DC will be featured as if it was one of his primary messages. Yet, King was about far more than dreaming. His mission was about “action” coupled with concrete and definitive change.

Unfortunately, many of his methods for social and economic change have been distorted since his death in 1968. And, as organizing for social change is often a matter of life and death, everyone concerned about injustice should take another look at King’s nonviolent methods. Nonviolent social change requires long, hard and sustained work, research, development of solutions, and, importantly, on-going commitment. It demands far more than bringing folks together to march and wave banners.

It appears that King’s involvement in massive demonstrations is invariably touted as his ultimate method for change, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Unfortunately, many activists throughout the world seem to be of the opinion that if you are concerned about an issue you should organize huge “feel good” rallies, which is hoped will almost magically result in changes.

The considerable risks in social change work can be demonstrated in the 1989 Chinese democracy movement. Like many throughout the world, the Chinese students wanted to demonstrate their dislike of the Chinese system through organizing a mass mobilization. And, like many, it was as if they seemingly had the mistaken notion that the mass gathering was an end in itself.

In June 1989, while in the Philippines, I talked with Filipinos activists who had been in constant communication with the young Chinese “democracy” leaders in Beijing who helped plan and implement the 1989 Tiananmen Square hunger strike. It was a mobilization that ended in tragedy. There was a lack of political consensus and unity in the impromptu coalition between students and workers and because of this, confusion prevailed in their negotiations with the Chinese government. It was just a matter of time before the brutality of the Chinese state would violently demonstrate its impatience.

On June 4, 1989, at the behest of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, troops descended upon the students and workers encamped in the square and against the solidarity movement throughout the country. In what is now known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, estimates of some 4,000 Chinese were killed and 20,000 wounded.

What concerned my Filipino friends was the lack of unity, organizational infrastructure, and clarity in the demands of the students and workers to the Chinese government, which, they said, likely helped contribute to the violent response from the Chinese government. They were by no means apologists for the Chinese violent behavior but rather stressed the need for clarity and unity in any demands for social change when challenging a powerful state.

Mass mobilization or direct action, in fact, is only one part of the non-violent methods for social change. There are other misconceptions I would like to mention but first here’s a description of the steps King and other used in their social change work.

Based on the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, the Kingian method for nonviolent social change is a systematic one. Here is a brief summary: (1) once the problem is identified it is essential to research the issue (i.e. define the problem, who are the key players, who or what is being affected) – the research and analysis should be above reproach as disputed or incorrect facts and figures can completely undermine the efforts for the evolving campaign; (2) based on the research, state clearly what needs to change to solve the problem and identify the strategy for solving the problem; (3) recruit others to join the struggle, share your findings and strategies, get their input if necessary, but essentially seek a commitment from them (i.e. this is the problem, this is what we intend to do, are you with us?) (4) teach them in nonviolent tactics (i.e. being non-confrontational during direct action); (5) attempt to resolve the problem through negotiations (i.e. negotiations with whoever controls the policies needing to be changed); (6) if that doesn’t work, apply pressure through direct action techniques, which at times need to be sustained for a lengthy period (i.e. boycotts, mass demonstrations); (7) negotiate again, if necessary engage in direct action again – often more research is required or more clarity on the solutions needs to be developed; (8) finally, if the problem is solved, seek reconciliation.

The first issue that gets lost is that King sought “reconciliation” with his adversaries and an improvement of life for everyone. This is the end goal and if victory is all that’s wanted then that’s not Kingian nonviolence. Reconciliation is also probably the most difficult aspect of the Kingian philosophy for activists to embrace. In his book “Stride Toward Freedom” King said that the nonviolent methods are “not an end in themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

There is almost always a misunderstanding of how to define the adversaries in nonviolent social change. Dr. King said it is not a “battle” against individuals who commit evil acts but against the evil itself. Regarding the Montgomery struggles, he said, “The tension isbetween justice and injustice. and not white persons who may be unjust.” King said further that “the nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or engaging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in-kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate.”

Another misconception is that complaints can be made without concrete demands for change. Those who seek change should always develop the solutions because you don’t want to leave that in the hands of your so-called “adversary” – otherwise you’ve wasted your time. King also called for a fair hearing from the adversaries and to listen to them, as there might be some wisdom to gain from that experience. However, if you don’t like what politicians or others do, you certainly don’t want them to be the chief architects in resolving problems. So don’t just engage in a “feel good” march in front of the White House, Congress, State House or the WTO and assume that you have completed your mission, made your statement. If you haven’t developed your solutions to the problems you’re addressing, you’ve only done a quarter or less of what is necessary.

It is often thought that nonviolence and pacifism are the same. Not so! It is probably true that most advocates of nonviolence are also pacifists. Nevertheless, nonviolence is a “method for change”. Pacifism is “being against war”. Within this misconception is the assumption that nonviolence is cowardly, a “turn the other cheek” method, which is not true. As a method for change, nonviolence is confrontational. King said, “it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight.”

King said that every nonviolent campaign should be anchored in a boycott and, importantly, voter education and voter registration. While everyone could do more on this, voter education and registration are often included in various movements. Rarely these days, however, do U.S. activists choose to challenge the bulwark and muscle of corporate America, even in spite of the unfettered capitalist abuse in which we live. King wisely recognized that going against corporate America was one of the most vital ways to change behavior. Referring to the Birmingham movement, King said, “it was not the marching alone that brought about integration of public facilities in 1963. The downtown business establishments suffered for weeks under our unbelievably effective boycott.”

King once said that the “Arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice.” I would venture to say that the progressive community throughout the world needs to place consistent and considerable pressure on that arc.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. In the early 1980s, she conducted research in non-violence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and, from 1985-86, she directed the nonviolent program at the King Center for Coretta Scott King.

                          Heather lives in Atlanta and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

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