Freedom and Racial Prejudice
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 7 - Social and Political Philosophy
Martin Luther King Jr., from "Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience"
Kem Stone - 26 March 2008
The editors of this anthology have included a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in the section about political
freedom, though I see this text as having more to do with the concept of revolution and its moral justifications.  In
this speech, King talks about the underlying philosophical principles of the student movement in the South, fighting
against racial segregation.  While the issue of freedom—namely the freedom for blacks to attend the same schools
and enjoy the same opportunities as whites—is certainly central, I read the speech more as an argument for the
merits of non-violent resistance, or civil disobedience.  King believes that revolutions are necessary, but that in
order to maintain the moral high ground, they must be non-violent.  I greatly admire Dr. King, and until very
recently would have completely agreed with him, but lately I have come to question whether pacifism is a sufficient
tool of resistance in
all cases, and whether violence is never justifiable as a means to achieving peace and
freedom.  Therefore after my exposition of King’s speech I will offer a counter-argument that will attempt to show
that violent resistance can be justified in certain cases.

King begins by explaining that the racial “crisis” taking place in the South is a result of the Negro re-evaluating his
own intrinsic worth.  Rather than “stay in his place” the black man has decided that he is just as deserving of
freedom and dignity as every other human being, and must therefore stand up and demand it.  When a people are
oppressed, King says, there are three ways in which they can deal with their oppression.  First is to accept and
surrender to it, in which case nothing changes.  Second is to rise up against the oppressor in a violent struggle,
which usually causes more problems than it solves.  The third method, that which King believes is the right
method, is non-violent resistance, such as that used by Mohandas Gandhi in resisting the British in India.  This is
the method used in the South by the student movement, and King goes on to discuss the underlying principles
behind the decision to go about their struggle in this way.

The first principle is that the means used to achieve something must be as pure as the end.  This is the most
important and also the most objectionable proposition when it comes to non-violent resistance.  Many
philosophers, most notably Machiavelli, have claimed that the right ends can justify any means.  King cites
communism as the prime example of how a movement with a noble goal can be completely stripped of its
justification by the violent means used to achieve it.  For King, “The end represents the means in process and the
ideal in the making….So the idea of non-violent resistance, the philosophy of non-violent resistance, is the
philosophy which says that the means must be as pure as the end, that in the long run of history, immoral
destructive means cannot bring about moral and constructive ends” (438).

Central to the idea of non-violent resistance is the principle of non-injury.  Those who adhere to this philosophy
must refuse to inflict injury upon others, both by refraining from external violence and avoiding internal violence of
spirit.  Thus the ethic of
love stands at the centre of the non-violent revolution.  King explains that the type of love
he is referring to is not the kind of sentimental emotion that most people associate with the word “love” and to
clarify this he calls on the aid of the Greek language, which has three words for love.  There is
eros, which is
romantic, or aesthetic love.  There is
philia, which is a reciprocal love, or the kind of love that binds people
together in friendship.  And finally there is
agape, which is “understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all
men.  It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.  Theologians would say that it is the love of God
operating in the human heart” (439).  The kind of love at the centre of the student movement is the love that Jesus
meant when he said to love your enemies—not to
like your enemies (King acknowledges that some men are
nearly impossible to like) but to respect and honour them as human beings with as much of a right to live and be
free as oneself.  The direct result of maintaining love for one’s enemies even in a revolution is that the target of the
revolution must be the unjust system, rather than the individuals who are a part of that system.  The individual is
only a misguided player who can always change his mind and be redeemed, but it is the system that teaches men
to think the wrong way that must be destroyed.

One thing that separates the participants in an unjust system from those who would use non-violent resistance to
struggle against it is the way in which suffering is used.  There are moral attributes to suffering that can become a
creative force if it is endured rather than inflicted.  “Violence says that suffering can be a powerful social force by
inflicting the suffering on somebody else: so this is what we do in war, this is what we do in the whole violent thrust
of the violent movement.  The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly
accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the centre of the non-violent movement and the
individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive, and that
suffering may serve to transform the social situation” (440).  To suffer injustice for the sake of justice is at the heart
of Christian morality, but there is a pragmatic side to this strategy as well: the majority is more likely to sympathise
with an oppressed minority if that minority peacefully endures its suffering than if it should refuse and lash back
violently.  Social change is often reactionary, and a resistance is in a better position if the public is reacting to the
violence against them rather than the counter-violence they might use against their oppressors.

That this strategy can be successful rests on the basic assumption, which is another principle behind the student
movement, that all human beings have a capacity for goodness.  King acknowledges that it is unrealistic to believe
that all people are essentially good and interested in doing the right thing, but insists that there is a dichotomy in
human nature between the impulses towards good and evil, and that all human beings have a potential for good.  
King uses Plato’s image of a charioteer with two headstrong horses each pulling in different directions, leaving it to
him to decide which way to lean.  Though on the whole, King sees a “strange badness” when looking at the
collective life of man, he does not believe the capacity for evil is any more innate in human nature than the capacity
for goodness and compassion.  “And so the individuals who believe in this movement and who believe in non-
violence and our struggle in the South, somehow believe that even the worst segregationist can become an
integrationist” (440).

That human beings have the capacity to change is central to another essential principle behind the student
movement: that non-cooperation with evil is just as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.  This idea
is at the heart of civil disobedience, and many see it as a contradiction.  The proponents of the civil rights
movement call for citizens to obey the Supreme Court’s decision to allow integration while advocating, at the
same time, the disobedience of other laws.  King insists that there are just laws and there are unjust laws.  “A just
law is a law that squares with a moral law.  It is a law that squares with that which is right, so that any law that
uplifts human personality is a just law.  Whereas that law which is out of harmony with the moral is a law which
does not square with the moral law of the universe.  It does not square with the law of God, so for that reason it is
unjust and any law that degrades the human personality is an unjust law” (441).  For those who do not believe in
God or a universal moral code, King says that an unjust law is a code inflicted on the minority by a majority that is
not binding on itself.  If a law is inflicted upon a minority that had no part in creating or enacting that law, as were
all laws in the South before blacks had the right to vote, it is an unjust law.  Those who practice civil disobedience
recognise that there are unjust laws, and by accepting the penalty for disobeying them and staying in jail until the
law is changed, they are actually showing the utmost respect for the
principle of law, if not for the unjust law itself.

By refusing to obey unjust laws, King insists that the students are in good company.  “You see Socrates practicing
civil disobedience.  And to a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil
disobedience.  The early Christians practiced civil disobedience in a superb manner, to a point where they were
willing to be thrown to the lions” (442).  Conversely, everything Hitler did in Germany
was legal, and it was
against the law to give aid and comfort to Jews.  The Germans who did help them were practicing civil
disobedience, and were right to do so.  The United States itself began with acts of civil disobedience such as the
Boston Tea Party, and blacks were freed from slavery thanks to the civil disobedience of the abolitionists.  So this
type of resistance has historical as well as philosophical justifications.

In these examples, it is easy to see exactly what the revolts were against, and King concludes by clarifying what
the student movement is a revolt against.  He calls it a revolt against the “negative peace” that has encompassed
the South through the years.  Some have objected to the movement on the grounds that things were peaceful and
that civil-disobedience is destroying the harmony that had been carefully achieved.  But King insists that there
never was peace in the South, but merely a negative peace, or absence of tension.  True peace, according to
King, is the presence of some positive force, such as justice or brotherhood.  The revolt is also against tokenism,
as the token integration of a few black Americans in a few schools here and there is not sufficient for true
equality.  Token integration is merely token democracy, which only ends with new and more subtle forms of
discrimination (which we often see today in the post civil-rights era).  Finally, it is a revolt against the “myth of
time”, that popular sentiment that if everyone is patient eventually things will get better.  King argues that time is
neutral, that it can be used just as effectively by the segregationist as the integrationist, and that in order to achieve
one’s ends, one must aid time and not allow it to become an ally to the forces of social stagnation.

Finally, and importantly, King calls it a movement based on faith in the future.  At the heart of the student
movement is the hope that things really can be improved and a better society is within our reach as human beings.  
King speaks about the protest song of the student movement, “We Shall Overcome” and expresses his deep
admiration for those students who can sing that song on the way to a protest in which they will face jeering
crowds, or possibly injury or even death, and to still believe that eventually the forces of good will overcome.  
“Then something caused me to see at that moment the real meaning of the movement.  That students had faith in
the future.  That the movement was based on hope, that this movement had something within it that says somehow
even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice” (444).  This beautiful sentiment is
probably the most important, yet unfortunately the most philosophically indefensible claim made by Dr. King in this
speech.  For many people, the hope for a better world must be rooted in the idea that things will get better in the
long run, yet to accept such a proposition one would have to believe in a universal morality that always flows in
the direction of the good.  One cannot accept such an idea except through pure faith, as reason will not lead to
such a conclusion.

Before critiquing King’s position of non-violent resistance, I should say that in the context in which King is
speaking, he is absolutely correct and I agree with him completely.  When it comes to issue of civil rights, equality
and the integration of races, civil disobedience is absolutely the right way to go about it.  In fact, I would say that
whenever possible, non-violent resistance should always be chosen over violence, and my reasons would be very
similar to those given by King in this speech.  However I would not concede that pacifism is
always sufficient to
bring about positive social change, and that there are certain instances in which violence is not only necessary but
morally justifiable.  The primary example of such a case is the extermination of the American Indian and the
robbing of their native lands for the purpose of the expansion of the United States.  Non-violent resistance was
tried in many cases throughout this horrific period of history, and it did not work.  It
could not have worked.  The
only possible means by which the Indians could have held on to their territories would have been to band together
and fight their invaders, spilling enough of their blood so as to force them to surrender.

The central question when it comes to violent vs. non-violent resistance is that of means vs. ends.  Can violent
means be justified in bringing about peaceful ends?  Dr. King holds that they can not—that the means must reflect
the ends in the making.  And I would agree that in most cases, the violent means used to achieve peaceful ends
have not been justified.  One need not look very closely at history to list scores of examples of such movements.  
The Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, the Holocaust, the Communist Revolution, and just about every
post-WWII military conflict the United States has been involved in, are all examples of violent means being taken
too far to achieve peaceful ends.  The fact that history is littered with such events makes it easy to lead a sensitive
mind to the conclusion that violence is
never justified to bring about peace, but by accepting this as a proposition
that applies universally, we ignore the possibility that justified violence can even exist.  Yet if we believe it is
morally justifiable to shoot a person in self-defence, or to beat a rapist to stop him from harming a child, we must
accept that violence is justified in certain cases, and that therefore it is possible that certain ends
can justify violent

The question is where to draw the line, and I would submit that the answer has to do with the aims of the
revolution itself.  I believe that Albert Camus put it best when he wrote: “A revolution is not worth dying for unless
it assures the immediate suppression of the death penalty; not worth going to prison for unless it refuses in advance
to pass sentence without fixed terms.  If rebel violence employs itself in the establishment of these institutions,
announcing its aims as often as it can, it is the only way in which it can be really provisional.  When the end is
absolute, historically speaking, and when it is believed certain of realisation, it is possible to go so far as to
sacrifice others.  When it is not, only oneself can be sacrificed, in the hazards of a struggle for the common dignity
of man” (
The Rebel, 292).  According to this idea, the method of the revolution must be appropriate in terms of
the goals it wishes to achieve.  These goals must be specific, and they must not utilise any methods that belong to
the opposition that they are struggling against.  For instance, if the first group is fighting the second group because
they are opposed to the second group’s use of torture, the first group would not be justified in using torture on the
members of the second group, as the desired end of eliminating torture is nullified at the moment the group uses
torture to achieve that end.

In the case of the civil rights movement, the struggle was not against violence and death but against the poor
quality of life that the oppressed social group was forced to endure.  To kill in order to destroy a system that was
not killing but merely oppressing (of course many blacks were killed but they were killed by white racists rather
than the
system of segregation that was the target of the movement) would not have been justified.  Yet in the
case of the American Indian, they
were being killed.  They were being slaughtered by the thousands, so to kill in
opposition to such unspeakable violence becomes much more justifiable.  However, while it may have been
perfectly justified for an Indian to kill a soldier who has been ordered to kill the women and children of his village,
it would not be justified for that Indian to kill an innocent white woman or child in retaliation.  And this is precisely
where the line must be drawn: violence is only justified when used against the violent.  The moment an innocent
person is killed, it becomes murder.  Thus the destruction of a building which results in the deaths of both guilty
and innocent people can never be justified, no matter how noble the goals of the revolutionaries who destroyed it.  
The moment one innocent is sacrificed for the sake of the innocent, the line has been crossed and the movement
has sacrificed its own ideals by becoming the very evil it has been struggling against.

King speaks of the principle of non-injury, which was very appropriate in the case of the student movement in the
South, yet is not universally so.  If an oppressor continues to strike at you in spite of your refusal to strike back,
you can in some cases then claim the right to break the non-injury principle and strike back, specifically if your
survival is at stake.  Hitler would not have ceased executing Jews simply because they refused to fight back; had
the prisoners of the concentration camps banded together and murdered their captors, they would have been
morally justified in doing so.  The whites who forced the Indians from their lands would not have allowed them to
remain in their villages if they simply laid down their arms and refused to fight, and those who fought back were
therefore justified in doing so.  While it is certainly important that the target of any resistance ought to be the
system that encourages oppression and not the individuals who are a part of that system, it is no secret that certain
individuals would rather die than let that system be destroyed.  Those individuals, if they refuse to surrender and
let their system be destroyed, ought to be eliminated, and if imprisonment is impossible they must be eliminated
through death.  When the alternative is the death of thousands or millions of innocent people, the loss of a few
guilty people
is justifiable.

King is correct that negative peace is not acceptable, and that resistance against such a state of affairs is justified.  
He is also correct that non-violent resistance is the appropriate method in these cases, because here it is only the
quality of life, and not life itself, that is at stake.  Yet where there is no peace, either positive or negative, and lives
are at stake, we may need to look beyond civil disobedience to achieve our ends.  We must also recognise that
the “myth of time” is very real and that patience on the part of the oppressed is just as likely to increase the power
of the oppressor as it is to change his heart for the better.  One must aid time by doing what one can
now, without
waiting to see what will happen.  Yet in many cases, non-violent resistance will aid the oppressor with time just as
much as no resistance at all.  For instance, peaceful protests of the war in Iraq, which have been going on even
since before the war began, have done nothing to actually end the war, and the occupying force in that country is
only aided by the unwillingness of the opposition to take more drastic measures.  In this case I would not
advocate anything that would compromise the safety of American soldiers—who are just as innocent as the Iraqis
they protect—but it is clear that civil disobedience in itself is ineffective in bringing about this particular social
change, namely ending the abuse of American military power overseas.

Finally, we must take a hard look at this faith in the future that lies at the heart of every movement, and see how it
too can aid the myth of time.  If we really believe that there is some benevolent force underlying human history,
and that things will get better in the long run, we risk becoming complacent while the forces of oppression grow in
strength and power until human rights are a thing of the past and continuous war threatens the survival of our
species.  In order to really bring about social change on
any scale, but particularly in terms of a worldwide
movement towards peace and a unified humanity, we must
reject the faith in the future and acknowledge that
peace and freedom are no more likely to dominate the future of humanity than war and oppression.  Unless we
actively struggle to maintain the rights that our forefathers won for us (often through violence and death), we risk
losing those rights.  Unless we actively seek to destroy the systems that make war inevitable and eliminate the
individuals who would have it no other way, war will not end.  If we want the “arc of the moral universe” to bend
towards justice, we must bend it ourselves.