publisher colophon

I. Whose Lives Matter?

I remember the first time that I heard James Cone's voice. A well-established, white scholar had just given what I thought to be a solid presentation on Martin Luther King Jr.'s notion of the "beloved community." When he had finished, Cone was one of the first to speak in the question and answer period. His strong tenor was piercing: "You can't talk about the dream, if you're not going to talk about the nightmare." He went on to clarify his worry that the heart of King's message was too often lost when white scholars failed to put his thought in the context of the history and reality of the oppression of and violence against blacks in America. I have become afraid that my own thinking and writing about King's philosophy of nonviolence might be similarly guilty.

Another seminal moment for this essay was when William Hart responded to a paper that I gave, in which I proposed nonviolence as William James's moral equivalent to war. Hart suggested that I had not really given an argument for why nonviolence was morally superior to violence when it came to defending oneself against attacks on one's own person or one's own people. Stammering, I gave what has become for me something of a pat answer, which is that nonviolence is morally superior to violence because it allows people to engage in conflict while honoring the moral primacy of human life.

This answer is not satisfactory, however, especially if taken in the context of an oppressed group responding to the violence of an oppressor. In this context, the question quickly becomes whose lives receive moral primacy, whose lives matter? In my earlier paper, I applauded the readiness and ability of nonviolent actors to sacrifice their own lives.1 I argued that this was in keeping with the kind of moral equivalent to war that James sought. The nonviolent actor shows the heroism and loyalty of the warrior but also the self-sacrifice and suffering of the ascetic. Thereby, nonviolence might be that something that James was looking for as a moral equivalent, "something," in his words, "heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as [End Page 64] war has proved itself to be incompatible."2 I did, there, offer a corrective to both James's and King's assumption that the suffering itself is somehow redemptive, arguing that the pressure produced by nonviolent action is the all-important ingredient and that the possibility of suffering only a necessary medium.

But the question remains as to who is being called upon to suffer and sacrifice here. Nonviolent actors from oppressed groups may be honoring the moral primacy of their oppressors' lives more highly than their own lives. In the context of King's nonviolent movement, it is clearly black people who are being called upon to suffer. Greg Moses has pointed out that "Kingian principles and methods are widely respected and applauded by those who point at other people's liberation movements."3 Obviously, there is a problem with a white scholar like myself praising nonviolence when black bodies are on the line.

II. Black Self-Defense

Tommy Curry notes that white scholars are sometimes joined by black scholars in tending to privilege white lives over black lives. Nonviolent theorists might agree with Curry when he suggests that "liberation requires bloodshed." But Curry follows by stating that "the only difference is that Black and white academics, scholars, and theorists are willing to concede this necessity when speaking of the tolls taken on by the oppressed Black peoples of history, but shudder to theorize this stance when the demand is placed upon white lives."4 This privileging of white lives is exposed, Curry suggests, when the question of black pre-emptive, self-defense is posed. Usually, the response to this question is to deem the question itself out of bounds or not properly philosophical. "Violence by blacks becomes irrational, rage filled revenge, fueled by hate, patriarchal, and barbaric," writes Curry as he points up the irony that "despite the centuries of white philosophical traditions enduring alongside and even justifying armed revolt, riot, and just/ unjust war, philosophy is thought to end with discussions where Blacks theorize or advocate the extinguishing and challenging of white life."5

Curry traces the theoretical underpinnings of black militant civil rights activism through the writings of T. Thomas Fortune, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and [End Page 65] Robert F. Williams, and at the heart of this inquiry is the right of blacks to respond to white, antiblack violence with violence in turn. Acknowledging this right might be a necessary first move for a nonviolent philosophy that takes the nightmare seriously.

Curry argues that Wells-Barnett largely adopted Fortune's agitationist philosophy and perception that whites are largely driven by economic interests and are "beyond moral suasion."6 Fortune studied whites and concluded that "the commercial instinct of the Anglo-Saxon had blunted his every sense of honesty, fair play, and humanity"7 This was confirmed for Wells-Barnett when her friend Thomas Moss was lynched. Moss's only crime seems to have been his business success in establishing a cooperative grocery in Memphis. "Wells-Barnett's eyes were opened to 'what lynching really was—an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property"8 She concluded that "the white man's dollar is his god."9 In Curry's telling, both Fortune and Wells-Barnett had such a negative anthropology of whites that they surmised that blacks would need to resort to coercive methods. Fortune wrote that the white race "yields only to the force of circumstances."10

What results is an argument for the right of violent self-defense at both the individual and communal levels. Curry begins tracing this argument by quoting Fortune concerning individual self-defense: "If any person should ask me in what essential element Afro-American character was most deficient, I would unhesitatingly respond the dynamitic element; that is, the element of character which represents an injury promptly, and in a way most characteristic of the lex loci."11 These sentiments are mirrored in Wells-Barnett's famous quote about the place of honor of a Winchester rifle in every black home: "It should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give," she writes, "When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life."12 [End Page 66]

Wells-Barnett then expands this right of individual self-defense to the community as she defends retaliatory violence against lynching. "Fundamentally men have an inherent right to defend themselves when lawful authority refuses to do it for them; and when a whole community makes itself responsible for a crime it should be held responsible. . . . The way to prevent retaliation is to prevent lynching. Human nature is human nature."13 In a later article, Curry links this argument with Robert F. Williams and his Black Armed Guard of the 1950s and early 1960s.14 Even as King was beginning his movement, Williams still echoed Wells-Barnett's frustration and resolve. "In a civilized society the law is deterrent against the strong who would take advantage of the weak, but the South is not a civilized society; the South is a social jungle, so in cases like that we had to revert to the law of the jungle; that it had become necessary for us to create our own deterrent. And I said that in the future we would defend our women and children, our homes and ourselves with our arms. That we would meet violence with violence."15

On one level, then, we have an argument for basic self-defense, and on another we have an argument for organized communal response, which may include retaliatory or pre-emptive violence, and it is important to parse out King's views at both levels if we are to understand his philosophy of nonviolence in light of the nightmare. King himself was careful not to argue against self-defense and even found it to be something of a red herring or "false issue" often raised in arguments against nonviolence, King wrote, simply, that "the right to defend one's home and one's person when attacked has been guaranteed through the ages by common law"16 While King called his own commitment to nonviolence absolute and famously removed guns from his home at Bayard Rustin's bidding, he did not deny the right of self-defense even in his latest and most committedly nonviolent writings.

The important issue here, however, is the right of blacks to retaliatory or pre-emptive violence in self-defense and the place of this violence in civil rights movements. Here too, further parsing is necessary, because it seems that King preserved the right to violence while rejecting its place in the movement that he envisioned. King is careful never to condemn blacks who hold open the possibility of violent self-defense or even those who engage in more chaotic rioting. Famously, he wrote, "Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes [End Page 67] of white resistance, they are the consequences of it."17 In his chapter on Black Power in his final book, King addresses the roots of a defense of violence in the philosophy of Frantz Fanon. King does not directly refute a philosophy of defensive violence here. The closest he may come to doing so would be when he suggests that "the line of demarcation between defensive violence and aggressive violence is very thin. The minute a program of violence is enunciated, even for self-defense, the atmosphere is filled with talk of violence."18 But these lines obviously suggest a tacit admission of the right of violent self-defense.

III. Nonviolence as Pragmatic

Rather than refute this right, King offers pragmatic arguments for nonviolence. He doubts the effectiveness of a violent movement in the face of a "well-armed, wealthy majority with a fanatical right wing that would delight in exterminating thousands of black men, women and children."19 He states the limits of international solidarity, considering the results of antiblack imperialism. And he recounts the poor results of riots during the 1950s and 1960s, especially as compared with those of the largely nonviolent civil rights movement of which he had been part.

King also suggests, though, that violence is no more morally damnable than inaction: "We cannot condone either riots or the equivalent evil of passivity," he wrote.20 Late in his life he reiterated time and again the argument from the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" against the myth of time. Time does not march inevitably toward justice nor does justice come without cost. He even warned that "the average white person also has a responsibility"21 Rather than cast aspersions on blacks who would resort to violence, "he has to rise up with indignation against his own municipal, state, and national governments to demand that the necessary reforms be instituted which alone will protect him."22

In fact, King was calling for an ever "enlarged scale"23 for nonviolence and an ever more militant form of nonviolence. He called his path between passivity [End Page 68] and violence the "militant middle" and was calling for a "massive wave of militant nonviolence" at the time of his death.24 So much so that we might question the integrationist vs. agitationist dichotomy that theorists like Tommy Curry sometimes create.25 I can imagine King nodding affirmatively while reading T. Thomas Fortune as quoted by Curry: "Agitation, constant protesting, always standing up to be counted, to be heard, or to be knocked down—this spirit breeds respect and dulls the edge of tyranny. We should learn that the aggressive man, the man who is always ready to contend for what is his, is the man who gets what is his. In politics, in business, in social intercourse, we want to show . . . a deeper appreciation of the philosophy of life."26 King knew well that the African American "has not gained a single right in America without persistent pressure and agitation."27 King sought to channel the mounting rage of the late 1960s into a massive and sustained nonviolent movement. He reintroduced the concept of a nonviolent army and talked about shutting cities down, including Washington D.C. Vincent Harding insists that "King said what was necessary was a movement which would 'cripple the operation of an oppressive society' until it was ready to listen to the cries and see the real fires of the poor."28

So King envisioned an ever-more coercive, even rage-inspired nonviolence, even as he refused to disallow the right to violent self-defense. Greg Moses has argued that the success of King's nonviolence, in fact, has much to do with the nonexercise of violence precisely in light of the right to violence. Moses advocates nonviolence of the Kingian type "as a leadership choice, even when violence would be justified by 'rights' to liberation and self-defense."29 "Movements deliberately plan and deploy their right to violence as an absence or shocking gap, whose presence is asserted through erasure."30 Thereby the cycle of violence is broken, which is all important. Moses writes, "Especially when a people's movement is faced with well-armed enforcers of a status quo, who not only hold weapons in front of them but come strapped to propaganda [End Page 69] machines behind them, the movement toward freedom might be more wisely waged if people do not hand back to the status quo provocations that would legitimize escalations of violence and hype."31

King was almost dogmatically convinced of the effectiveness of nonviolence, but he also advocated for further study of nonviolence and its applicability. In fact, he thought further study of nonviolence was imperative to calling societies away from violence and warfare. Famously he wrote, "Therefore I suggest that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict."32 In his wake, much experimentation and study has been done. In fact, Gene Sharp and others have developed and codified nonviolent strategies. These strategies have been drawn on to depose dictators, to win civil rights, to oust occupying forces. They continue in the U.S. most recently in the Black Lives Matter and Sanctuary movements. And studies have been done showing the effectiveness of these strategies. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their book Why Civil Resistance Works, for example, compiled data over a one-hundred-year period concerning three types of resistance campaigns: antiregime, antioccupation, and secession campaigns. They concluded "that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts."33 The reasons for this success would be quite familiar to King. First, nonviolence necessitates broad-based participation and some level of consensus building to even begin its work. Secondly, nonviolence offers a constructive and conciliatory approach to conflict. And finally, Chenowith and Stephan have shown that nonviolent movements are much more likely to result in stable and nonviolent political structures. King often clarified that the last step in nonviolent action was reconciliation and that nonviolent methods were much more likely to allow room for such reconciliation than violent methods.

IV. Nonviolence as Revolutionary

While King insisted on the pragmatic applicability of nonviolence as superior to violence, we must say that he also saw nonviolence as more revolutionary than violence. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but King thought that violence was a capitulation with the oppressors and that nonviolence was the [End Page 70] only adequately revolutionary path. In his latest works, King was calling for a "radical revolution of values."34 He saw the greatest challenge to his movement to be the need for "enlarging the whole society, and giving it a new sense of values."35 This is probably most clearly and famously articulated in his speech "Beyond Vietnam," when he said, "We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."36 We should note that the use of the word "triplets" here is not just a rhetorical flourish. By this time, King clearly saw antiblack racism, economic imperialism, and violence as a set. He sometimes made explicit their inseparability, as he did when critiquing evocations of violence within the Black Power movement. He wrote, after once again quoting Frantz Fanon favorably, "But the problem is that Fanon and those who quote his words are seeking 'to work out new concepts' and 'set afoot a new man' with a willingness to imitate old concepts of violence. Is there not a basic contradiction here? Violence has been the inseparable twin of materialism, the hallmark of its grandeur and misery."37 Perhaps King would agree, then, with Fortune, Wells-Barnett, and Curry that whites have been driven largely by a ruthless attention to their economic interests, so much so that they are willing to treat people, especially black people, as things rather than persons. Materialism is inextricably linked to the nightmare of antiblack racism and violence. From the time when blacks were literally bought and sold to the present when black bodies are the currency of the prison-industrial complex, violence and death have been the hallmarks of this nightmare.

But, right or wrong, King cannot bring himself to believe that whites are beyond moral suasion. Like the Hebrew prophets, he is unflinching in his description of the evil practices of the oppressors even as he envisions a future when the oppressors would turn from their sinful ways. King never guaranteed that future, and he even saw himself as running out of time before it would come, but he did believe that it was possible for white people to repent.

I would submit that even more importantly and more powerfully, though, King's refusal of violence is a refusal to allow whites to drag him into realms of immorality. This is a truly revolutionary stance. King insists that to resort [End Page 71] to violence would be to imitate the moral failures of whites and a capitulation with the systemic evil that whites have perpetrated. King contends that it is not African Americans who have been mass murderers: "They have not murdered children in Sunday school, nor have they hung white men on trees bearing strange fruit. They have not been hooded perpetrators of violence, lynching human beings at will or drowning them at whim."38 He resolves, "I am concerned that Negroes achieve full status as citizens and as human beings here in the United States. But I am also concerned about our moral uprightness and the health of our souls. Therefore I must oppose any attempt to gain our freedom by the methods of malice, hate and violence that have characterized our oppressors."39 King rejects hate and violence as injurious to both perpetrator and victim and declares love as the only truly revolutionary path forward.

V. White Moral Failure

As a white scholar, white citizen, white person, it is not my place to tell blacks whether they should respond to white violence with violence or nonviolence. It would be far too easy for me to say the latter when it is not my body that is on the line, either prior to or during such a response. I am also treading on ice that is quite thin when making arguments about blacks' moral rights to violence even if I have sided with those who would say that blacks have a moral right to violent self-defense. Perhaps it would be better for me to conclude by pointing again to white moral failure.

In a seminar that I led discussing Eddie S. Glaude Jr.'s book Democracy in Black, an African American student jolted the conversation by saying quietly, "Well, white people created these problems, I think white people should solve them." The idea was not new to me, but the cool and stark manner in which the student stated it gave me pause. White people are the perpetrators of racism, materialism, and militarism. A study of whites in the United States, especially as they relate to blacks in the United States, can only judge that whites have been motivated by gross greed, have been more than willing to treat persons as things to be used and thrown away, and have been horrifically addicted to violence. If there is to be any moral turn, any repentance, whites will need to wrestle with this nightmare.

Then, whites will need to begin to change the structures that continue these habits. Whites need not worry about whether they will be accepted as allies or how best to show their solidarity with blacks. Rather, if they intend to act [End Page 72] morally, they will need to begin to fix the problems that they created. The problems are not difficult to identify. They include but are not limited to housing and lending policies that keep blacks from accumulating wealth, state violence against blacks through militarized police forces, and mass incarceration of black men. Many whites are in positions of power and privilege from which they can begin to change these structures. All others can heed King's call to rise up with indignation against local and national governments as well as corporate powers that propagate structures of white supremacy. To begin the work of fixing these problems would be the truest expression of a philosophy of nonviolence and King's revolution of values. [End Page 73]

Daniel J. Ott
Monmouth College
Daniel J. Ott

Daniel J. Ott is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monmouth College. His research interests include liberal theology in the twentieth century and Christian approaches to peace and nonviolence. His articles and review articles have appeared in Theology Today, Political Theology, and the American Journal for Theology and Philosophy among others. He is coauthor with Hannah Schell of Christian Thought in America: A Brief History (Fortress, 2015).


1. Daniel Ott, "Nonviolence and Moral Equivalency," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 35, no. 2 (2014): 172-83.

2. Willam James, Essays on Faith and Morals (New York: Meridian, 1972), 356.

3. Greg Moses, "A Shocking Gap Made Visible: King's Pacifist Materialism and the Method of Nonviolent Social Change" in The Liberatory Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Critical Essays on the Philosopher King, ed. Robert E. Birt (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 268.

4. Tommy J. Curry and Max Kelleher, "Robert F. Williams and Militant Civil Rights: The Legacy and Philosophy of Pre-emptive Self-Defense," Radical Philosophy Review 19, no. 1 (2015): 67.

5. Ibid., 58.

6. Tommy J. Curry, "The Fortune of Wells: Ida B. Wells-Barnett's Use of T. Thomas Fortune's Philosophy of Social Agitation as a Prolegomenon to Militant Civil Rights Activism," Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 48, no. 4 (2012): 465.

7. As quoted by Curry, ibid.

8. Ibid., 466.

9. As quoted by Curry, ibid., 471.

10. As quoted by Curry, ibid., 465.

11. Ibid., 464.

12. As quoted by Curry, ibid., 472.

13. As quoted by Curry, ibid., 465.

14. Tommy J. Curry and Max Kelleher, "Robert F. Williams and Militant Civil Rights"

15. As quoted by Curry, ibid., 57.

16. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 57.

17. Ibid., 12.

18. Ibid., 58.

19. Ibid.

20. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Showdown for Nonviolence" (1968), in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1986), 65.

21. King, Where Do We Go From Here?, 22.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., 21.

24. King, "Showdown for Nonviolence," 64.

25. A dichotomy that Curry himself avoids in "Cries of the Unheard: State Violence, Black Bodies, and Martin Luther King's Black Power," Journal of Africana Religions 3, no. 4 (2015): 453-69.

26. Curry, "Fortune of Wells," 468.

27. King, Where Do We Go from Here?, 96.

28. Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 17.

29. Moses, "Shocking Gap Made Visible," 266.

30. Ibid., 264.

31. Ibid., 267.

32. King, Where Do We Go from Here?, 141.

33. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 7.

34. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," in The Radical King, ed. Cornel West (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).

35. King, Where Do We Go from Here?, 194.

36. King, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," 214.

37. King, Where Do We Go from Here?, 68.

38. Ibid., 66.

39. Ibid.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.