“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When I was a teenager, navigating the indignities of racism in America and trying to articulate the frustrations of my experiences, I watched a great documentary series about the American Civil Rights Movement on PBS (the U.S.’s underfunded version of NHK or BBC). I learned about the courageous heroes and heroines that struggled and prevailed against the oppression of segregation, discrimination, and violence. Preeminent among them of course is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. January 15th was Dr. King’s birthday and it’s celebrated as a national holiday in the U.S. That the holiday even exists is remarkable, since during his life he was vilified by the government, and mercilessly harassed by the FBI.
I can’t even begin to describe the positive impact he’s had on my life, but I learned three valuable lessons after that history lesson. First, whatever prejudices I faced paled in comparison to what African-Americans had to face before and during the Civil Rights Era, and even now. Second, their sacrifice and courage made life better for all Americans. And third, lasting change, lasting justice, had to happen with moral principles like non-violence, forgiveness and love. Otherwise, it’s just going to be the same system, different masters.
It’s easier said than done. Non-violent resistance is surely the harder road than violence, requiring discipline and compassion. I’m not sure if I could have done it, to participate with the self-control to not lash back at the white supremacists who used water cannons, dogs, mob violence, lynchings and any number of other tactics of intimidation. But I’d have to do it that way. Not only is it the right way, but it’s the most effective way.
We take for granted that there is now a Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in almost every major U.S. city. Dr. King is now in the national pantheon of “Great Americans”. But few understand the great impact he’s had on daily American life. And fewer understand the radical politics that he preached. He was assassinated just as he began tackling the Vietnam War, as he, dangerously to many in power, began applying his principles to global matters.
Whenever I’m in San Francisco I make a pilgrimage to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Yerba Buena Park. Instead of just a statue, the memorial is a brilliantly designed art installation. It begins with a modest bubbling of water that flows down to the main memorial. The stream becomes larger and more powerful until it crashes down like a waterfall over a cavernous hall. Along the hall are quotes by Dr. King in several languages. The most prominent quote is “We are determined…to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for mankind to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Martin Luther King Jr., December 11, 1964