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Civil disobedience, or the bullet?

October 27, 2010

I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension”. I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. – MLK


I’m nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me.  But when you drop that violence on me, then you’ve made me go insane, and I’m not responsible for what I do. And that’s the way every Negro should get.  Any time you know you’re within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don’t die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal.                    – Malcolm X

If there’s anything the Civil Rights movement shows us, it’s that societal change requires a sort of trench warfare. Progress is typically gained in inches, and success can only be won by those willing to devote themselves to months–even years–of resistance. And while frustration with this creeping pace can unite a group of people, it rarely breeds consensus on how it should be dealt with.

Case in point: Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men weren’t satisfied with sitting around waiting for social equality; King denounced “the ‘do-nothingness’ of the complacent,” and Malcolm X was convinced the white power structure would not offer the black community any worthwhile gains. However, they split very clearly on the use of force.

King preached that violence was simply unacceptable, even when one was the victim of violence. Malcolm X, while not openly promoting violent behavior, considered King’s way of doing things ineffective. He famously said that once the ballot had been denied by the oppressor, the oppressed needed to be able to take up the bullet.

So the question we end up with is, “How should one work toward change”? More specifically, how should an oppressed or disadvantaged group break its shackles? Personally, I take King’s side on this. The methods Malcolm X preached might get results, but at what cost? Fighting in the streets only yields resentment and hatred, creating an atmosphere amenable to more violence. Violence does not strengthen a cause; rather, it delegitimizes it in the eyes of would-be supporters. Of course, Malcolm X would say oppressed minorities should actively self-defend, even if they need to use “rifles and shotguns”. In his eyes, that’s the only way to show “the man” you’re not a doormat.

But what do you think? Should activists stick to peaceful lobbying, even at the risk of compromised results? Or should they use “any means necessary” once confronted?

  1. Madeline Smith permalink
    October 27, 2010 1:49 PM

    This is exactly what I was considering while I read Malcom X’s speech. You raise some excellent points but I do disagree- I feel that faced with their situation sometimes self defense is necessary. I think that in some situations civil disobedience is not enough.

  2. alifoti permalink
    October 27, 2010 2:58 PM

    I personally think that Dr. King’s method of civil disobedience is more effective. While I understand the immediate effect of violence as a reaction to injustice, I interpret Dr. King’s theory of disobedience as one that works through the system of laws to enact gradual change. If a person uses civil disobedience to highlight the inconsistency in the unjust laws with the just rule of law, and then later accepts punishment for this disobedience, the person has disobeyed within the structure of the laws. In this way, people attempt to restructure the system, instead of destroying it. I agree with you that the cost of the violence that Malcolm X proposes is too high in that it only yields more violence.

  3. Joshua Henderson permalink
    October 28, 2010 12:25 AM

    In MLK’s letter from Birmingham jail, he distinguishes between a just law and an unjust law by drawing the analogy with Nazi Germany making it illegal to hide jews. MLK goes on to say that he would break this law because he considers it unjust. MLK goes onto say that if you wish to break a law you should do it openly and be willing to face the consequences, which he did during the Civil Rights movement in the USA. However do you really think MLK, or anyone for that matter, would openly break the law in Nazi Germany and be willing to face the consequences?

    If the answer is yes then many of the heroic stories from the Holocaust would never have happened and many resistors, whether they be french freedom fighters, polish, hungarian etc. would all have been killed without hesitation.

    Perhaps Malcolm X is being hyperbolic when saying that the bullet was so easily necessary but when you’re very right to live is being denied as in the case of Nazi Germany, Malcolm X has the right choice.

    Malcolm X does not say that it is a simple choice, in fact he argues that as long they have the ability to vote they should use that, the bullet is a drastic resort. Malcolm X also states that he would not use violence on those who show him no violence.

    I personally believe that MLK is right, when your ability to resist does not endanger your life (Malcolm X would agree with this as well) but when your very right to create a change is impinged or your life is threatened then I think the bullet should be considered an option.

  4. Andrew Clark permalink
    October 28, 2010 2:30 PM

    I think both sides help one another. Without the threat of violence, non-violent methods lose force. But when violence actually takes place, the non-violent movement loses its credibility and its power. Malcolm’s threats of violence probably motivated some people to go along with King’s ideas, his bus boycott and student sit-ins. Hobbes believed in the motivation of fear – threats of violent action, coupled with an alternative can produce a strong political and social movement.

  5. Jed Erwin permalink
    October 28, 2010 7:52 PM

    I do not think violence is acceptable but, Locke tells us that individuals have the right to rise up against their government if their government wrongs them. I am not sure Locke would support Malcolm X though. When Malcolm-X refers to “the Man.” It is unclear if he means the government or just white people in general. If he is referring to the government, than Malcolm-X, according to Locke, has the right to rise up against the government and the government would be the aggressor. If, on the other hand, he is referring to white men in general, than attacking them would leave Malcolm-X as the individual at fault. What Malcolm-X means by “the man” is the ultimate question in defining wether Malcolm-X is justified.

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