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  • Nonviolence and the Nightmare:King and Black Self-Defense
  • Daniel J. Ott (bio)

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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2156-4795
Print ISSN
0194-3448
Pages
pp. 64-73
Launched on MUSE
2018-04-27
Open Access
No
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