Monday, January 15, 2007

The Lessons of MLK for IR

As I enjoy one last day of winter break before the Spring semester begins tomorrow, I thought it appropriate to think a bit on this day in honor of Martin Luther King about the lessons from MLK that can be applied to international relations. Focusing on the outstanding "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written in response to a critique of non-violent confrontation instead of continued negotiation published by eight clergy, we find the essence of MLK's strategy of non-violence:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through an these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants --- for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic with withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.


You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.


One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."


You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all"

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an "I-it" relationship for an "I-thou" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state's segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?....
When reading King's forceful defense of the need for non-violent confrontation, I cannot but help think of the Palestinians. It is not difficult to imagine that an approach that relied less on rockets, kidnappings, and suicide bombs would have already resulted in an independent Palestinian state. For all its brutality and unjustness in the treatment of the Palestinians, Israel is a liberal democracy that realizes the contradictions and problems that result from the occupation. Oppressing the Palestinians rips at the moral soul of the country and its people every day. But, when people feel threatened, when their children are kidnapped or murdered, when missiles slam in to their homes, when sitting in a coffee shop becomes an adventure in risk taking, injustice can be explained away as necessary self-defense.

If Palestinians were lying down in front of Israeli bulldozers, chaining themselves to their olive trees, conducting sit-ins in Jewish settlements in the territories, would Israel react differently than did the US during the civil rights era? It seems unlikely. Instead, however, Palestinians turned to violence almost from the beginning of Israel's history, even before the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war.

It will be interesting to see what difference the security fence being built in the West Bank will have. By most accounts, suicide bombings in Israel have nearly stopped and 2006 saw the fewest Israeli deaths in six years. The withdrawal from Gaza, which was already fenced off from Israel, and the construction of the fence have made it exceedingly difficult for Palestinians to infiltrate themselves into Israel. As Israeli casualties drop and Israelis begin to feel more secure in their everyday lives, they very well be more willing to consider the plight of the Palestinians. As Palestinians find that violence is a less effective strategy, perhaps they might turn to a MLK-like program of non-violent confrontation to force the issue.

As King noted, "freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Hopefully, the Palestinians can learn, or be taught, that violence is not an effective demand.


WeeZie said...

First and foremost, you are butchering the legacy of Martin by attempting to paint him as some sort of pacafist. Please refer to the "Beyond Vietnam" speech he gave a year before he was assinanted in which he said he understood and supported what the Vietnamese resistance was doing.

The part about the peaceful nature of the Palestinians, which you say does not exist - the chaining up to olive trees and the like, please refer to

this is no eccentric event, this sort of thing is happening ALL over Palestine but apparently, it isn't getting into the IR books about terrorism.

Seth Weinberger said...

Non-violence doesn't work in conjunction with violence; it must be an alternative. If groups like the Black Panthers had been more successful, advancements in civil rights would have been much harder to achieve. If the Palestinians were to move towards a serious strategy of non-violence, they must rescind the legitimacy given to groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

WeeZie said...

It certainly worked in South Africa.