M.L. King on the origins of Civil Disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement

Reflecting upon the proposed Montgomery Bus Boycott, King writes…

“Disturbed by the fact that our pending action was being equated with the boycott methods of the white citizen councils, I was forced for the first time to think seriously on the nature of the boycott. Up to this time I had uncritically accepted this method as our best course of action. Now certain doubts began to bother me. Were we following an ethical course of action? Is the boycott method basically unchristian? Isn’t it a negative approach to the solution of a problem? Is it true that we would be following the course of some of the white citizens councils? Even if lasting practical results came from such a boycott, would immoral means justify moral ends? Each of these questions demanded honest answers.

“I had to recognize that the boycott method could be used to unethical and unchristian ends. I had to concede, further, that this was the method used so often by the white citizens councils to deprive many Negros, as well as white persons of good will, of the basic necessities of life. But certainly, I said to myself, our pending actions could not be interpreted in this light. Our purposes were altogether different. We would use this method to give birth to justice and freedom, and also urge men to comply with the law of the land; the white citizens councils used it to perpetuate the reign of injustice and human servitude, and urged men to defy the law of the land. I reasoned, therefore, that the word “boycott” was really a misnomer for our proposed action. A boycott suggests an economic squeeze, leaving one bogged down in a negative. But we were concerned with the positive. Our concern would not be to put the bus company out of business, but to put injustice out of business.

As I thought further I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our economic support from the bus company. The bus company, being an external expression of the system, would naturally suffer, but the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil. At this point I began to think about Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience. I remembered how, as a college student, I had been moved when I first read this work. I became convinced that we what we were preparing to do in Montgomery was related to what Thoreau had expressed. We were simply saying to the white community, “We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.”

Something began to say to me, ‘He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.’ ”

Martin Luther King, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom


One thought on “M.L. King on the origins of Civil Disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement

  1. I believe that Martin Luther King was a man of vision. An exceptional thinker and powerful motivator. Being black in his time was a life of disrespect, no opportunity and plenty of frustration. He helped to move “racism” to the public stage and it cost him his life. So many have died or suffered for being black. It is truly our national blemish that never really heals.

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