Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Political Doctrine of Peaceful Protests in America from His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Civil Rights Leaders Praying during a Peaceful Protest
Protests Creating Nonviolent Tension
In his letter, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes it categorically and unequivocally clear that in the advancement of civil rights, he rejects any kind of public protests advocating or resulting in violence. For instance, he writes,
“I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”1
But, notes King,
“… 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.”2
Protests Not Creating Violence
The nonviolent tension of public protests does not result in the destruction of property, looting, beating or killing people. Rather, the tension is meant to create constructive dialogue with civil authorities, in the hope of bringing about changes in the laws, equally advancing the civil rights of Blacks with Whites.
Dr. King, then, does not advocate public protests “That would lead to anarchy.”3 Rather, a public protest is a “positive peace,”4 leading to “the presence of justice.”5 King adds,
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”6
The tension is brought out in public, revealing to the community and the nation the injustices which Blacks have suffered.
Protests Issuing from Anger and Hate
In his letter, reflecting his political philosophy, King again and again stresses that the protests he organizes are “nonviolent efforts”7 at achieving social justice and peace. There is, however, another approach that people have to public protests with which King disagrees, calling them “black nationalist groups.”8 Contrary to King’s approach to peaceful protests,
“The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence.”9
According to King, such people “have lost faith in America,”10 “have absolutely repudiated Christianity”11 and “have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil.’”12
Protests Issuing from Love and the Desire for Peace
King’s approach is a mean or middle ground between extreme approaches to public protests, noting, as he writes, that
“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”13
King teaches an approach to public protests, issuing from the decision to love others and to attempt to create peace with them. That approach is much harder to apply to public life than hate and violence, which require little, if any, discipline or self-restraint.
To whom or what should White and Black Americans look to learn the methods and attitudes involving peaceful, nonviolent protests? King answers,
“I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.”14
The Black, Southern church can teach not only Blacks but also Whites how to organize and successfully implement such protests.
Creative Outlet of Protests Issuing from Repressed Anger
King himself, being a Black American, understands that
“The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march…. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”15
Therefore, for King, there are two radically different kinds of public protests. The first results from repressed anger and hatred, leading to the destruction of property and human lives, resulting in a chaotic or disordered society. The second, while issuing from repressed anger, is creatively channeled by a disciplined, conscious decision to act out of love, choosing to protest peacefully, calling attention to the injustices suffered by Black Americans.  
Summary and Conclusion: King’s Hope for Racial Justice and Peace in America
Fifty-Seven years after King wrote his letter, Americans are still engaged in a racial struggle. In many urban and suburban areas of America, there is still anger, resentment, hatred and violence directed at public authorities, resulting even in the killing of Black and White human beings. I hope, along with probably millions of Americans — whether Black or White — that there will be new, positive developments in civil rights, resulting in a social climate of justice and peace. In the words of Dr. King,
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”16
1. Martin Luther King, Jr. 16 April 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania. [Web:]
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.

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