J. Pharoah Doss: Misusing MLK moral authority

 Over the last decade, numerous riots have erupted in response to fatal encounters between unarmed Black individuals and police officers. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” but the activists who condoned the violence used this phrase to cloak themselves in MLK’s moral authority in order to silence others who denounced the riots.

MLK’s comment described how, when the oppressed felt systemically neglected by the authorities, they voiced their dissatisfaction through rioting.

However, the condoners of violence who hijacked MLK’s moral authority confused MLK’s knowledge of the structural reasons that created riots, with MLK acknowledging rioting as a form of resistance.

Of course, that is not the case. MLK also stated, “Let me say, as I’ve always said and will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppress people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve, that in a real sense, it is impractical for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So, I will continue to condemn riots and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way.”

As you can see, self-serving radicals who are uninterested in MLK’s actual philosophy routinely use and abuse his moral authority.

Here is another example.

Morehouse College, the historically Black college where MLK studied, invited President Joe Biden to deliver the graduating address. Alumni circulated a letter requesting signatures, urging Morehouse’s president to revoke Biden’s invitation.

According to the alumni, President Biden’s support for Israel made the Biden administration complicit in the genocide in Gaza and other crimes against humanity. As a result, President Biden was inconsistent with the pacifism articulated by MLK, Morehouse’s most renowned graduate, and should not address the graduating class.

Regardless of how awful the carnage was in Gaza, high rates of collateral damage do not add up to genocide, but the alumni utilized MLK’s moral authority to bolster their case. The alumni also mistook MLK’s nonviolent philosophy for absolute pacifism.

MLK was fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War because it diverted funds from LBJ’s “war on poverty,” not because he stuck to the pacifist doctrine that all wars were unjustified.

In 1960, MLK wrote an essay called Pilgrimage to Nonviolence. MLK said, “I felt that while war could never be a positive or absolute good, it could serve as a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, I felt, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system.”

MLK would not have objected to Israel going to war in Gaza following Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack. Morehouse alumni, on the other hand, inferred MLK’s absolute pacifism from the words that followed.

MLK said, “But more and more, I have come to the conclusion that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibility of war ever serving again as a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Reading this statement in relation to the Cold War is critical.

When MLK declared, “Nobody can win a war,” he wasn’t generalizing. He was aware that Israel won its war of independence in 1949. MLK meant that no one would win in a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. For the first time in human history, military weapons had the potential to destroy the entire world, forcing superpowers to abandon war as a means of resolving conflicts.

MLK was not articulating pacifism, but political realism.

The belief that “mankind has a right to survive” formed the core of MLK’s realism. That is why MLK would have comprehended Israel’s declaration of war against Hamas. This fight is not a nuclear war between two superpowers. Therefore, MLK would have acknowledged that Israel has the right to fight for its survival.

Historian David Chappell expounded on the reasons why we cannot regard MLK as an advocate of absolute pacifism. According to Chappell, “King rebelled against the pacifist attitudes that so many liberal Christians in his day embraced. To King, conventional pacifism required too much faith in human goodness. King believed that pacifists’ moral purity also imbued their cause with a self-righteousness that alienated the ordinary masses that he identified with. Pacifists refused to acknowledge the moral dilemmas that ordinary people faced: Force was often necessary, for example, to free slaves, defend the defenseless, or halt the expansion of mass-murdering regimes.”

Despite complaints from alumni, President Biden spoke at Morehouse’s graduation ceremony.

However, one reporter described Morehouse College’s 2024 graduation as a ceremony of resistance and protest. Some students draped themselves in the Palestinian flag; other students stood and turned their backs on President Biden; and other students simply walked out.

If Israel’s hostages ever get out of Gaza, they will undoubtedly quote MLK, but they’ll sadly say, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  




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