On January 19, people in the United States and around the world celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who used nonviolence to advance civil and human rights.
The question arises — after the tragic shootings at Charlie Hebdo and other horrendous events in dictatorial nation-states over the past few months — whether non-violence can still work in an extremely violent world.
The answer is yes but peace must be forged first.
In response to the Hebdo massacre, numerous cartoonists and columnists used the old phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” in their respective drawings and words.
We agree that the pen is mightier than the sword. But that is only true as long as those with swords are able to protect the rights and lives of those with pens against wanton killers.
The pen works wonders in a civilized society. It is a fragile instrument, however, to employ against terrorists and despots who accept no legal rules or social conventions and will use any means to destroy those whom they hate.
That is why, in describing the necessary roles for the United States in the world in our book Renewing the American Dream, we stated, “Having the ability to be a peacekeeper is essential to the future of the human race.”
This is not an assertion made by war-mongers or security sycophants. It is the assessment of two realists and advocates for peace.
Frank Islam is on the advisory board of the U.S. Institute for Peace — an organization devoted to the nonviolent prevention and mitigation of deadly conflict around the globe. Frank also just received the Martin Luther King Legacy Award for International Service.
Given our predispositions, we both would like to see all dangerous differences and disputes resolved in a nonviolent manner. The hard truth is this is absolutely impossible to do with those who wage war on humanity and decency and are unwilling to negotiate on anything.
Force and other means will be required in order to create the necessary conditions for nonviolence to come into play as a viable tool. Those conditions are: a state of peace, the rule of law, a democratic or participative society and responsible officials in positions of power with the character and courage to recognize inequities and to correct them.
When these conditions exist, non-violence becomes the best weapon in the arsenal for meaningful social change and progress. We have been fortunate to see the extremely positive results that can be achieved through nonviolence by those two champions of nonviolence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Gandhi was the original architect of using nonviolence for a powerful purpose. He developed the doctrine of Satyagraha – nonviolent resistance to evil – which has been translated variously as “truth force”, “love force”, and “soul force”.
That force was irresistible. Its use by Gandhi and his followers enabled India to gain its independence from Great Britain and to become a nation state in 1947. Sadly, Gandhi himself was able to enjoy the fruits of that independence for only a very short period of time as he assassinated by a fanatic in 1948.
Gandhi was an inspiration and the person from whom Martin Luther King Jr. learned his “operational techniques.” As history has shown, however, Dr. King did not stand in Gandhi’s shadow but stood upon his shoulders to cast a giant shadow of his own.
Martin Luther King visited India for a month in1959. During that visit in a broadcast on All India Radio, King said, “If this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that Gandhi so nobly illustrated in his life.” After his visit, Dr. King wrote, “I have returned to America with a greater determination to achieve freedom for my people through nonviolent means.”
And he did just that with passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 after the Selma to Montgomery march of that year. Those two major pieces of legislation gave Dr. King the platform to speak with increased legitimacy and authority on issues of race, poverty, economics and community.
Which he did but only briefly because he suffered the same tragic fate as Gandhi. King was assassinated in 1968. He was only thirty-nine years old.
In spite of the progress made in the in the United States in the areas of race relations and human and civil rights over the past half century, problems remain and much still needs to be done. This holds true for India and is even more true in many other countries around the world.
Mahatma Gandhi counseled us that, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Dr. King advised us that “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
There are many who have embraced the philosophy and practices of nonviolence and decided to “walk in the light” and to “be the change.” They are making the United States and the world better. We commend them and call upon others to join with them in this mission.
It is a critically important one. Because as civil rights activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman observed, “A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back — but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you.”
Yes, it is. We agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Wright’s statement of responsibility to carry forward the good work of King and Gandhi.
But, we do not concur that these two great men are gone. They live on through each person who is willing to pick up the cudgel of nonviolence and use it as an instrument for making peace.
Passionate peacemakers and peacekeepers are unstoppable and unbeatable forces. United they not only ensure the relevance of nonviolence — they make this world a safer, saner and fairer place for all.