Inauguration Eve: What Will We Build?

In the New Yorker last week, the writer and journalist Jelani Cobb offered a thoughtful and compelling essay on Dr. King’s legacy on the cusp of our next presidential inauguration. I recommend the essay; it’s a concise lesson in history and a stark reminder of what’s at stake.[i]

I have only one concern about the piece. In it, Mr. Cobb twice called Dr. King a pacifist, referring at one point to “King’s ideals of pacifism.”   Martin Luther King was not a pacifist; he was a non-violent activist.

This is a terribly important distinction.  Dr. King was a radical activist. He was insistent, un-relenting, deeply critical of white supremacy and the racist status quo.  He was also a passionate advocate for loving kindness and compassion.

While Dr. King is remembered for his advocacy for racial justice, I’m not alone in my concern that he is celebrated, especially by white folks, primarily for his peacefulness. The lovingkindness and compassion part if his message sits well, but it is misunderstood by many as non-threatening.[ii] This dilution of King’s fierceness has been called “white washing.”  It’s a subtle violence we do when we reduce a person to a part.[iii]

My concern today is the distinction between non-violence and passivism.  Passivism is essentially a belief that all violence is unjustifiable, and that conflicts ought to be resolved peacefully.  A passivist acting out of that belief refuses to engage in violence, and may choose to work toward peace.

A fundamental assumption of non-violence is that violence begets violence every time.  So non-violent practice begins, as does passivism, with refusing to engage in violence.[iv]

But nonviolence doesn’t stop there. Nonviolence actively obstructs violence. It also actively constructs peace.  In his short and wonderful book, The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action, Michael A. Nagler writes,  “Oppressive regimes can usually wait for a march or demonstration to go away, but they cannot survive a cottage industry when they are trying to exploit [workers], or a free school when they are trying to indoctrinate a citizenry.”

The non-violent activism most of us are familiar with is the obstructive kind – marches, demonstrations, sit-ins, communication with elected officials.  I think many are despairing tonight because we see that while these actions are crucial — for keeping energy going, for showing the world that we do not accept the policies, practices and behaviors of current leadership, for eschewing silence — they also see that such actions are often summarily dismissed by those in power.  Calls for fairness, decency, critical thought, and attention to fact are dismissed as the inconsequential whining of losers.

“In such a world,” Nagler continues, “The ideal formula for liberation is to reduce as much inherent conflict as possible through constructive programs, and to isolate and confront the rest through non-violent struggle.”

Dr. King and his colleagues in the movement designed brilliant obstructive strategies, “confronting and isolating through non-violent struggle.”  They also constructed programs for families and children, and for communities, and hard-won relationships between blacks and whites, Christians and Jews.

Mahatma Gandhi didn’t know or use the word “nonviolence.” That came after as a way to describe the tactics in which he engaged.  He called the work satyagraha.  Nonviolence, satyagraha, is at its core a disciplined practice of attention to and respect for others’ humanity.

Many are wringing their hands tonight, despairing that the power that seems to be ascending is impervious to activism, to fundamental assertions of decency.  I think our hands are wringing in part because we haven’t understood that we can put them to work – building things, reducing as much violence as we can, in whatever small and large ways we can.  That’s a critical part of the work ahead.

What relationships, what communities, what organizations, what art, what businesses, what inner strength, what bridges can we build that are wholly constructed of satyagraha, the one thing that oppression cannot survive?
















[ii] [ii] Now, at least – then, not so much, as evidenced by rigorous efforts by many, including government agencies, to undermine Dr. King and his work.

[iii] For more on this dynamic, google “whitewash” and “Martin Luther King,” then read critically.

[iv] I’ve written before that this includes reducing anyone to a derogatory term. Even supporters of the man who will be inaugurated tomorrow as president of the United States. Even the man himself.

One comment

  1. Another wise and thought-provoking piece, Lucinda. I am so very grateful for your presence in the world.

    xo Carolyn


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