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Civil rights movement

Nonviolence, MLK and Luton

by Peter Adams

As a Christian leader in Luton in 2009, faced with the emerging far-right street protests from the nascent English Defence League (EDL), I sought a way to oppose hatred in our community that wouldn’t simply multiply violence. The inspiration I needed came from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. and his principles of nonviolence.   

December 1955, Montgomery, Alabama

The first salvos sounded of a revolution that would shake the Southern USA. It was time for the embedded racism, the structures of segregation, and the random injustices of Jim Crow laws to be challenged. There was no more appropriate place than the city known as the “Cradle of the Confederacy”: Montgomery. The weapon of choice in the revolution? Nonviolent direct action.

The arrest of Rosa Parks, a respected community activist, for refusing to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger proved a suitable case to pursue through the courts.  Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., newly in post as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and elected president of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association, brought a unity across the Black churches that combined with a passion for social change. His early assessment found the Black community to be “the victim of a threefold malady: factionalism among the leadership, indifference among educated groups, and passivity of the uneducated.”

The day after Parks was found guilty and fined, a community meeting of 5,000 people agreed to boycott the bus system. Organising as a community in the face of attempts to negotiate them into compromise, division, intimidation, bombings and arrests, 40,000 people held their ground for 381 days. They left the buses empty, walked their feet off where they could, pooled vehicles when necessary, mounted actions and protest around the city, and cared for their disadvantaged.

Most importantly they refused violence. Weekly mass meetings trained the community in maintaining a peaceable attitude in the face of harassment and violence. Towards the end workshops prepared them to re-board buses in a dignified and conciliatory manner. Months before victory King wrote:

“We do not wish to triumph over the white community. That would only result in transferring those now on the bottom to the top. But, if we can live up to nonviolence in thought and deed, there will emerge an interracial society based on freedom for all.”

King recognised that victory had been won long before the U.S. Supreme Court ended bus segregation. African Americans had stood with a new sense of dignity and respect in the face of continuing discrimination.

Proving ground

Montgomery turned out to be the proving ground of the nonviolent direct action principle which was to be the hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement. The same principles guided the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s as multicultural groups of students rode interstate buses together across the South and tested their rights to use bus station restaurants and toilets.

The same went for the lunch counter sit-ins, for voter registration organising, for the protests against the brutality of authorities in Birmingham, Alabama, and with the infamous Selma voting rights movement and march over the Edmund Pethus bridge en-route to Montgomery. 

“Nonviolent resistance is … a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”

King’s first manifesto of nonviolent social change was laid out in Stride Towards Freedom, his story of the Montgomery bus boycott. Arriving in Montgomery with a intellectual commitment to nonviolence for which “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the model”, his principles of nonviolence appeared in their early form in Ch6, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.”

Nonviolence is not about cowardice or passivity, but courage and strength. “It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.”

Nonviolence “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.” King later came to describe this reconciled world as “the Beloved Community”, a place of justice where all attain their potential.

Nonviolence attacks forces of evil rather than the persons doing, even victimised, by evil. “The tension in [Montgomery] is not between races … if there is victory it will be not merely for 50,000 negroes but a victory for justice and forces of light.” Nonviolence enables us to “analyse the fundamental conditions, principle and policies of the conflict rather than reacting to one’s  opponents or their personalities.”

Nonviolence means we must accept suffering without retaliation. King quoted Gandhi: “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.” King strongly advocated redemptive suffering. Again he quoted Gandhi: “Suffering is indefinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears which are otherwise shut to the voice of reason.”

Nonviolence not only refuses to shoot the opponent, it also refuses hatred. Or as King puts it: “it avoids not only external physical violence but internal violence of the sprit. We must avoid becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. We must cut off the chains of hate … [and] and project the ethic of love to the centre of our lives.” At this point King draws from his Christian teaching on love.

Finally, nonviolence is sustained by a strong sense of the universe being on the side of justice, a deep faith in the future which empowers a faith in the future. King acknowledges this may come from Christian faith, another faith or some creative force for universal wholeness.

A precious conviction

Developing his understanding in the years after Montgomery, King described nonviolence as “a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on till the end.”

In the multicultural complexity of Luton I have personally found King’s principles to be invaluable. We needed an approach to build up the centreground, rather than polarise the community; to break the cycle of violence rather than fuel it. And to give hope rather than strengthen hate. These have been an important part of building a stronger and united community.

Over recent years I have had the opportunity to train to lead courses in Kingian nonviolence and then to train further in King’s models of community organising in a course led by his associates, Dr Bernard LaFayette and David Jensen.

Lafayette was sent to organise voter registration in Selma and throughout Alabama as a 22-year-old. He was with King the evening before his assassination and has devoted his life’s work to nonviolence since. His stories from some 40 prison cells certainly add authenticity to the challenge, as did training alongside the sons and daughters of civil rights leaders, and have firmly convinced me that a commitment to nonviolence is the way forward for our society.


Peter Adams is Director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, based at St Mary’s church in Luton. He also serves a board member of the HOPE not hate Charitable Trust.