Civil disobedience, or the bullet?
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?