Henry David Thoreau was the first nonviolent activist who actually formulated a coherent theory of what this philosophy would mean in action, and in the 20th Century both Mahatma and Gandhi and Martin Luther King followed similar principles. None of them claimed believed that nonviolent, direct action was identical to pacifism, passive resistance or inaction. It did not imply weakness or cowardice, but the exact opposite for only the bravest people would be willing to oppose the power of the state or the majority of popular opinion. Truth, justice and morality required that the minority or the individual take a stand against evil, even at the risk of death. Of these four writers, only Malcolm X rejected nonviolence on general principles, since he thought that blacks had the right to use violence in self-defense and that revolutions and guerilla warfare against an oppressive government were justified. At the same time, though, he did not oppose other methods like protests, boycotts and using the power of the vote if they were effective in achieving the goals of black liberation. Gandhi and King were far more religious than Thoreau, and even claimed that all major religions endorsed nonviolent resistance, while Malcolm X did not seem to believe that his own religion of Islam was necessarily nonviolent.
According to his essay “Civil Disobedience” (1848), Thoreau was an anarchist who thought that the best government was one that governed not at all and that the majority was almost never right. He openly opposed the state and federal governments because he thought they were responsible for launching a war of aggression against Mexico and upholding slavery in the South. Majorities did not decide right and wrong but only morality and conscience, and it was “not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right” (Thoreau 2). Most people simply obeyed the state and the law like robots and machines, without thinking, but Thoreau argued that the present U.S. government was so corrupt that no one “without disgrace can be associated with it” (Thoreau 3). Because humanity was mostly motivated by expediency and self-interest, only a few would ever take a stand for justice, even when they thought that slavery and the Mexican War were wrong. They stood by while injustice continued, passively complicit with it, when they should have all followed Thoreau’s example in refusing to pay taxes to the government or cooperate with it in any way. Yet very few would ever openly oppose the state because they “dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it” (Thoreau 8). In the past, though, he had refused to pay taxes to a church of which he was not a member and now he refused to support a government whose actions were evil.
Gandhi claimed that his nonviolent philosophy embraced everyone in the world, including Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, as did Martin Luther King. He argued that Satyagraha (literally soul-force) was the essence of the message of Jesus Christ, even though Europeans had long ago turned their backs on it. Campaigns of nonviolent protests, boycotts and civil disobedience had first been used in South Africa in 1908 before being employed against the British government in India. Like Thoreau and King, he denied that these methods were only for the weak and cowardly, but were used “only by the strong” (Gandhi 312). Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King opposed the use of firearms, bombs and physical attacks on their opponents because soul-force was motivated by Truth and Love, even for enemies. Gandhi also thought it would have been impossible to arm everyone in India, since they could not “rival Britain or Europe in force of arms”, and King thought that the black minority were in the same situation in the United States (Gandhi 313). In both movements, the satyagrahi or nonviolent resister had to be willing to face physical abuse or even death without retaliating or even feeling hatred for the oppressor. Jesus extended his blessings to the poor, the sick, the hungry and the powerless, and for Gandhi that was the heart of any true religion. This was also similar to the religion of Martin Luther King. Given the situation that Gandhi dealing with, he had no choice except to make every effort possible to prevent India from dissolving into communal and sectarian violence after independence in 1947, and this was a noble effort even though he failed. Britain exploited the hostility between Muslims and Hindus constantly as part of its divide and rule policy in India the 1920s and 1930s.
Martin Luther King also used Gandhi’s term ‘soul-force’ to describe his own nonviolent movement, which would always be opposed to the physical force of the oppressors. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King understood very well that the white clergy of the city did not like him and had no real sympathy for him or the cause of black civil rights. They did not want him in the city and hoped only that he would leave, but King appealed to them on moral and ethical grounds, on the premise that they really are people of conscience and goodwill no matter whether this is the case in reality. As for the injustice he referred to, this was clear and obvious given that Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the South with a particularly violent Ku Klux Klan group located there. Birmingham also had the nickname ‘Bombing-ham” because of the KKK’s use of explosives, including attacks that blew up the motel where King was staying and the black church where he had his headquarters, killing four little black girls in a Sunday school class. Under these circumstances, when his people were literally being killed and his life was in danger constantly, King certainly had to struggle at times to maintain his nonviolent principles.
Among the long-time KKK members was the Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor, who reacted against the civil rights marches with police dogs, beatings and water cannons and imprisoning so many people that the jails were full. His real goal in Birmingham was to show the entire nation the true conditions that blacks had to endure in the Jim Crow South, in hopes that Congress would finally pass this Civil Rights Act. He also hoped to encourage the administration of John F. Kennedy to support this new law, which it had been extremely reluctant to do for fear of offending Southern white voters. King went on to express his deeply-held convictions about Christian nonviolence and social justice, which were a regular theme in all his speeches and writings, and which might even have moved some of the white clergy, stating that “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here” (King 1963). King was also well aware that Paul’s last journey to Rome also resulted in his death at the hands of the emperor Nero, and was prepared to sacrifice his own life in this struggle, using all means short of violence. For him, the struggle against poverty, discrimination and racism was always a global one, and injury to ‘the least’ of God’s children was a sin and an offense t the entire world. No one could evade moral responsibility for the evils and injustices of the world, or play the role of ‘good Germans’ in the Third Reich, who simply obeyed orders and did their jobs while others suffered oppression, persecution and death. He believed in the “interrelatedness of all communities and states.Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King 1963).
Only the Muslim Malcolm X did not share the same principled commitment to nonviolence as Thoreau, King and Gandhi. He was a very gifted public speaker, though, and waned in his “The Ballot or The Bullet” speech in 1964 that blacks were going to obtain civil and voting rights one way or the other. Malcolm was not as skeptical of voting as Thoreau, and for that matter both King and Gandhi always made use of the ballot box, lobbying and political involvement as part of the overall strategy for their movements. As Malcolm pointed out, the politicians in both parties needed the black vote and the Democrats would not have been elected without it. Even a “Southern cracker” like Lyndon Johnson understood that very well, just as the other Southerners who were blocking the civil rights bill knew that they would be out of office if blacks could vote in the South (Malcolm X 1964). He went on the blacks should use violence for self-defense in areas where the government refused to protect them, and expressed admiration for the guerillas in Algeria and Vietnam. This was the age of the guerilla fighter and “nowhere on this earth does the white man win in guerilla warfare” (Malcolm X 1964). Furthermore, he rejected the integrationist ideas of Martin Luther King if favor of nationalism that would allow blacks to control political and economic life in their own communities. He disliked the U.S. government as much as Thoreau and said “you’re wasting your time appealing to the moral conscience of a bankrupt man like Uncle Sam” (Malcolm X 1964).
For men who had dedicated their lives to nonviolence, both Gandhi and King did at the hands of assassins, just as Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Gandhi was shot in 1948 by a Right-wing Hindu fanatic he thought he was being too sympathetic to Muslims. King was successful in beginning the process of desegregation in Birmingham, although the Klan came very close to assassinating him there. In 1965, King would be in Selma, Alabama, organizing the marches and protests for voting which, which again provoked a very harsh police response that was seen on national television. This led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Right Act. Later, King became outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War, and at the time of his assassination in Memphis in 1968 was preparing to lead a Poor People’s March to Washington. Gandhi and Martin Luther King exemplify moral leadership on both their means and ends. Often, moral leadership consists in doing what is right, regardless of the consequences, and morality is not defined by personal comfort and convenience, or even what they majority of people believe to be right. In fact, the individual might have to stand alone against the norms of society or the state, especially when these are evil and unjust. In history, truly moral leadership has been very rare, and often takes on the most heroic qualities imaginable.
Gandhi, Mohandas, “On Satyagraha”, 1915.
King, Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, April 16, 1963.
Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”, 1964.
Thoreau, Henry David, “Civil Disobedience”, 1948.