“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek”: The day Martin Luther King was punched twice by a Nazi

Brad Pierce's Blog

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…

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“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek”: The day Martin Luther King was punched twice by a Nazi

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.”

Passé?

“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 Marcus Borg on the true meaning of “turn the other cheek”

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.”

See also “MLK on true compassion and a revolution of values” and “No such thing as an unjust peace“.

MLK on true compassion and a revolution of values

According to Martin Luther King on April 4, 1967 (exactly a year before he was martyred in Memphis on April 4, 1968)

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

and

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

According to Clayborne Carson, as interviewed in “Clayborne Carson: King’s Chronicler

He always put the immediate issue into greater context. In all of his great speeches, what he does is say we’re here, engaged in this immediate struggle, but the broader struggle is global and historical. The movement for human rights is taking place on a global level. And it has deep historical roots. It’s been going on since the time of slavery and after the passage of civil rights legislation, and if he were alive today he would say it’s still going on. That’s why he was an inspiring, visionary figure. He understood the larger context.

and

What I try to emphasize in my work is how deeply rooted his ideas were and how radical they were. Look at love letters he wrote to Coretta in 1952, which I quote in the book. If those letters had been revealed in the late ’50s — where he’s talking about his anti-capitalism orientation — he probably would have been seriously damaged as a leader. That’s why Coretta kept the letters hidden — rumored to be under her bed — almost to the end of her life. She realized how politically damaging they could be to him.