Constructive tension 

Martin Luther King"s letter remains relevant today

Martin Luther King's letter remains relevant today

"Protest the next war now," read the sign one man was holding at a peace rally a few weeks back. And it neatly sums up the current state of the movement: The war in Iraq is all but over, but now there's the issue of winning the peace and dealing with the fallout. India is talking about pre-emptive strikes on its eternal enemy Pakistan, and Bush Administration officials are already confidently rattling off names of the next targets on the World Tour (Syria seems to be high on that list). It's a tough time to be a peace activist, particularly as the U.S. takes its victory lap around the Mideast.

A particularly grim and unamusing essay has been making its way around the conservative blogosphere lately, indicating that the best way to deal with peace ralliers is to beat them up and show them nonviolence never works. Really. Here's an abbreviated version of the idiocy: "In the middle of their remarks, without any warning, punch them in the nose. Very quickly and calmly remind the person that violence only brings about more violence. Most of them will think for a moment and then agree that you are correct. As soon as they do that, hit them again. Only this time hit them much harder. Square in the nose. Repeat steps two through five until the desired results are obtained and the idiot realizes how stupid of an argument he/she is."

Dour as it is, I can't help but love this essay. It's the funniest thing online in months. I almost wish some of these brainiacs would go for it, because everyone knows how well beating up the pacifists always turns out. Just ask Eugene "Bull" Connor. Connor, the Boss Hogg-like public official in Birmingham, Ala., in the early 1960s, probably had no idea what dealing with true nonviolence was really like when Martin Luther King and allies rolled into town in 1963. Faced with a mass that would neither back down nor fight back, Connor resorted to the attack dogs, the high-pressure fire hoses and the police batons, never realizing that he was single-handedly helping King's movement far more than a thousand supporters ever could.

Eventually King ended up behind bars for a month, during which he produced one of his finest pieces of writing, his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, written during a month spent behind bars at Connor's orders. At 6,000 words, it's far too long to touch on all its high points here, but his message continues to speak to the modern face of activism.

Consider: Criticism of the modern peace movement often hinges on activists as "outside agitators," stirring up trouble where they're not wanted. King's thoughts: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country." Nor in their hometowns.

The face of the peace movement changes every day. It is not, as some have said, a faceless mass directed by evil Communist forces far from home. Every rally I have covered in Indianapolis includes dozens if not hundreds more faces - Mr. and Mrs. North America, your friends and neighbors - who have seen the rush to war and imperialism and have finally said, "Enough."

In his time, many considered King to be an evil Communist agitator and even people who supported his own cause often criticized him heavily. Lesson to be drawn: Just because you're hated doesn't mean you're not right. Such tension did not faze King; in fact, he welcomed it. "I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. There is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth."

Another less-than-well-thought-out criticism I have heard leveled at the peace movement is that the message is too diverse, that the message is muddled by how rallies often include discussions of issues such as racism, poverty, worker's rights and feminism. And yet King understood, especially late in his life, that many great injustices - war, racism, poverty, injustice - draw from a common well and thus should be attacked at the same time. He was criticized heavily for his Vietnam War opposition; it did not stop him. The day he died, he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.

King presented his Letter on April 16, 1963, 40 years ago today. He remains the closest thing to an American saint; Connor remains a miserable footnote in a saint"s biography. Punch out the protesters to show them nonviolence never works? I suppose if you want to ally yourself with Connor"s way of life, more power to you. Myself, I'll side with King and constructive tension, every time. King"s Letter can be read in full at

Photographer Charles Moore's unforgettable photo gallery of the Birmingham campaign can be seen at

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