Nonviolence key to student activism

By By Spencer Merrick

By Spencer Merrick

In a time when our nation was being torn by tension, bleeding with prejudice and endorsing racial inferiority as an inherent truth, a Baptist minister from the South named Martin Luther King Jr. boldly declared, “No lie can live forever.” That minister would spend the greater part of his life seeking to defeat racist lies while radically avoiding a conflict that would defeat the people behind it. He insisted that love would overpower hate in the struggle and it was perhaps his insistence on nonviolence that held the nation together through this transformation.

King was assassinated more than 40 years ago, but his legacy lives on in ways that many of us could never appreciate. The blatant racism that was so commonplace 40 years ago is now something you often only hear about in news reports of hate crimes or when a grandparent takes you by surprise with an offhand racist remark. Although the social climate has changed considerably, we’ve still got a long way to go, not just with racial equality, but also with poverty and violence, all things King addressed. What are we as students, whom King praised for our “hunger for participation in significant social efforts” and “youthful creativity” doing to carry on his legacy?

Student activism presented a kind of fire that gave new life to the Civil Rights Movement. After being moved to action by King’s powerful words from his book Stride Toward Freedom, black students decided to take action for themselves. They started a sit-in at a local restaurant that had a policy of not serving black people. As days passed, more students joined the sit-ins until all seats of the restaurant were occupied.

“If our drive was to be successful, we must involve the students of the community,” King said. Within six months, student sit-ins had ended segregation in restaurants in 26 Southern cities, not to mention the pools, churches, beaches, etc. that were also desegregated. Although often attacked or beaten, students followed King’s teachings and did not hit back.

But as the struggle worsened, it became undoubtedly agonizing and difficult even for King to continue peaceful protests. After you hear of friends and colleagues gunned down in front of their wives and children, after you are beaten and jailed a number of times, after bombings claim the lives of four little girls in Sunday School, you look around and see segregation thriving as if you’ve fed it instead of suffocated it, and you question whether nonviolent resistance is even effective at all. And many did question8212;especially students.

Many of those same students that helped fuel the Freedom Rides through the South abandoned King when colleague after colleague was murdered. Students sought something more immediate and physical, and in throngs they went after Black Power, Malcolm X-style resistance. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would later accuse King of being too timid, while the NAACP criticized him for being too radical.

Nevertheless, King clung to nonviolent resistance, attributing God as the source of his strength. He called Jesus’ concept of love overpowering hate a mysterious truth, and said, “I may not see it in my lifetime. But I know it’s true. Because on that bed, full of bruises and stitches, God made it true in me.” He always insisted that “the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” At church, King strove to awaken his congregations to broader issues like segregation.

I can’t help but wonder how things would be if we as students heeded King’s call to abandon the trivial and once again provide the fire that can fuel change. Although many students left King at a crucial time for a “more realistic” effort toward change, in the end, it was nonviolence that won. How can we once again embody the principles that King taught?

I can’t help but wonder how different the landscape of Rwanda would look had the Hutus or Tutsis practiced King’s nonviolent beliefs; or Chechnya; or India and Pakistan, on the verge of war only a half-century after Gandhi, one of King’s heroes, liberated 400 million people through nonviolence.

May we remember King and honor his legacy by continuing to pursue his dream of equality, freedom and human rights.

[email protected]

Spencer Merrick