“Nonviolence or Nonexistence”: King beyond his Loudest Dream

by Metta blogger Philip Wight

In late August 1963, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most-remembered oratory address: the “I have a Dream” speech. The most influential speech of the American Civil Rights Movement, King’s passionate call for racial equality needs no reproduction here. However King’s “dream” speech is merely his most vocalized vision; an early version of his philosophy that is tame, digestible, and inoffensive today. To understand King as a prophet of peace, we must rediscover his philosophy of radical and visionary nonviolence.

Popular history speaks for itself, but radical history needs illumination—and King was a radical. Called an “apostle of militant nonviolence” by one historian, King accepted being called an extremist, qualifying himself as an extremist for peace, “love…and the extension of justice.” As the Civil Rights Movement grew beyond political rights and social equality, King focused on two problems plaguing Americans: militarism and poverty.

The 1964 Nobel Peace Prize recipient understood “we have guided missiles and misguided men.” Because the destructiveness of modern war and nuclear weapons “totally rules out the possibility of war ever serving again as a negative good,” King argued humanity had two choices: “either nonviolence or nonexistence.” This wasn’t an argument intended just for foreign powers though, as this radical pacifist believed his own government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Asked what he would do if drafted to fight in Vietnam, King’s answered unequivocally: “I would be a conscientious objector.”

King’s passion for nonviolence and justice shaped his economic views as well. While he fought for economic security and prosperity for all, King understood that “violence has been the inseparable twin of materialism, the hallmark of its grandeur and misery.” He argued the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” were only capable of being “conquered” when humanity evolved from a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” Because America’s economic system of free-market capitalism enshrined the “profit motive” as the highest virtue and advanced “cutthroat competition and selfish ambition,” King (along with other nonviolent visionaries like Albert Einstein and E.F. Schumacher) called for a more-humane system of “democratic socialism.”

So on this occasion when we remember King’s “dream” of racial equality, let us not forget his prophetic vision of radical nonviolence and economic justice—even in the face of violence and inequality.

After all, King understood when “our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”


To learn  more about Martin Luther King, Jr., visit the King Research Institute at Stanford.