Doctor King mastered the art of using non-violence as a weapon to get what he wanted (and, more critically, what our country needed). A more conventional weapon killed him in Memphis 40 years ago today. It wasn’t the rifle, or the slug, or even the presumably racist motivation of the man who shot him dead on that motel walkway, that cost King’s life.
I think it was the truth — a truth self-evident and yet fundamentally counterintuitive to human nature. Which was: violence is unnecessary and even counterproductive. We’re so captive of our violent nature that the idea of being willfully non-violent — particularly for political means — doesn’t compute.
King wasn’t the first to come up with this idea: Gandhi used it to kick the British out of India; today Indian companies are buying up British carmakers. Gandhi was murdered, too, which might’ve been on King’s mind when he said he’d seen the promised land but didn’t think he’d make it there with his people.
The genius of King and Gandhi was to use non-violent civil disobedience to provoke the inner violence of so-called civilized people. It worked because it created a “shooting an unarmed man” image that exposed how unjust these supposedly just people could be.
I’ve often wondered if the Palestinians would’ve had better luck following King’s model. Can’t say because it’s never been tried (at least not explicitly), but it sure seems to me that every act of Palestinian violence against Israel convinces the Israelis they’re justified in continuing to make life miserable for the Palestinians. Strikes me that if the Palestinians tweaked the conscience of the Israeli nation without killing and maiming its children, they might have a shot at ending the oppression (though that would render the fire-eating fanatics who run things irrelevant, and who wants to be irrelevant?)
Imagine what would’ve happened to King’s followers in Alabama and Mississippi if they’d have fought back at the bigots with baseball bats and firebombs. The lynchings would probably still be going on to this day.
King’s truth exposed the lie that America was a free country in the middle of the 20th century, when skin tone determined which schools people could send their kids to, which fountains they could get a drink from.
The truth got King killed, but he breathed life into an ideal that made America a more truthful country. We all owe him a thank-you for that.