According to Ron Rosenbaum interviewing MLK biographer Taylor Branch about his “battle to prevent Dr. King’s profoundly considered theory of nonviolence from being relegated to history, and not recognized for its relevance to the issues America and the world faces today”
King’s practice, Branch says, was complex and radical and has been often misunderstood. Some of his closest supporters had their doubts about King’s own commitment to nonviolence—whether it was “personal” or just an abstraction for him.
During a meeting of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a man rose up from the audience, leapt onto the stage and smashed King in the face. Punched him hard. And then punched him again.
After the first punch, Branch recounts, King just dropped his hands and stood there, allowed the assailant (who turned out to be a member of the American Nazi Party) to punch him again. And when King’s associates tried to step in King stopped them:
“Don’t touch him!” King shouted. “Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.”
When the assailant started slugging King, most people thought, Branch says, that “it was a surprise part of the program. He walked up and slugged him and people still thought that this might be some sort of nonviolent demonstration or something. And then he hit him again!”
“Hit him hard?”
“Hit him hard! In fact, he couldn’t continue the rest of the convention. Knocked him around and finally people realized this was not a demonstration, that this was an emergency and went and dragged him out…and swarmed around this Nazi, and King is already saying, “‘Don’t touch him, don’t hurt him.’”
It was an important revelation, even for some of those who had been close to him for years. Even for Rosa Parks, the heroine of King’s first struggle, the Montgomery bus boycott. “Rosa Parks was quite taken by that,” Branch says, “because she always thought that nonviolence was an abstraction to King. She told him that she had never really seen it in him until that moment. And a number of other people did too.”
People still don’t quite believe in nonviolence in the radical way King did, though Branch thinks it’s the most important aspect of his legacy.
“You call nonviolence ‘an orphan,’” I say to him. “What do you mean by that?”
“The force behind the idea of nonviolence was given its most powerful run in the civil rights era. [Which showed] that it could have an effect in the world. But it became passé pretty quickly toward the end of Dr. King’s career.”
“Everybody was jettisoning nonviolence, black and white. White radicals sneered at it. Black Power people sneered at it. ‘Power comes out of the mouth of a gun,’ so on and so forth. And so it became passé pretty quickly even as a matter of intellectual investigation.”
Ironically, Branch says, “The only place I found that studied it in classrooms was in our war colleges, the Naval War College and West Point.”
According to Matthew 5:39-41, Jesus says:
If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
For much of Christian history, people have heard these verses as affirming political acquiescence, not active resistance. Yet King and Gandhi interpreted Jesus as justifying political action. Which interpretation was right? Recent Jesus scholarship suggests these verses are creative non-violent strategies of protesting oppression.
The key … is rigorous attention to the social customs of the Jewish homeland in the first century and what these sayings would have meant in that context.
To illustrate with the saying about turning the other cheek: it specifies that the person has been struck on the right cheek. How can you be struck on the right cheek? … You have to act this out in order to get the point: you can be struck on the right cheek only by an overhand blow with the left hand, or with a backhand blow from the right hand. (Try it).
But in that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people. It was reserved for “unseemly” uses. Thus, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas one fought social equals with fists.
This means the saying presupposes a setting in which a superior is beating a peasant. What should the peasant do? “Turn the other cheek.” What would be the effect? The only way the superior could continue the beating would be with an overhand blow with the fist–which would have meant treating the peasant as an equal.
Perhaps the beating would not have been stopped by this. But for the superior, it would at the very least have been disconcerting: he could continue the beating only by treating the peasant as a social peer. … The peasant was in effect saying, “I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore.”