How did Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence impact the response to his assassination?

Written by Robin Pollak

Dr. Martin Luther King devoted his life to the advancement of civil rights. He organized boycotts, led marches, gave powerful speeches, and amassed a nationwide coalition that followed his teachings of love and nonviolence. Dr. King wove together the different parts of the Civil Rights Movement: he convinced those who tended towards violence to stay peaceful; he convinced those who felt like their fight was hopeless to stay hopeful; he ensured that everyone remembered that they were all working towards the same cause. Then, on April 4th 1968, Dr. King was assassinated by a white supremacist and the nation was thrown into chaos and grief. How can a movement continue forward without its leader? How can a community stay true to its values of love and nonviolence when its heart had been taken by an act of violent hated? Without Dr. King there was no clear leader and no clear path forward – many felt that the time had come to retaliate to violence with violence.

After Dr. King’s assassination many public figures spoke out in the hopes of preventing violence but riots soon broke out in cities across the country. The night of Dr. King’s assassination Robert F. Kennedy told an audience in Indianapolis: “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.”1 The crowd screamed as one in grief and loss but Mr. Kennedy continued, asking the audience to “replace…violence…with an effort to understand with compassion and love” even though they all were “filled with hatred and disgust at the injustice of such an act.”2 Mr. Kennedy, like many others who spoke out following Dr. King’s assassination, asked for calm and peace. He delivered the message that Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence outlived him and were more important now than ever. There is no way to know what Dr. King would have wanted, but some other Civil Rights Leaders gave statements that made it clear they understood it would be difficult to maintain nonviolence in the face of such a violent act.

Stokely Carmichael worked with Dr. King on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that had organized many of the boycotts, sit-ins, and marches across the south and, although Mr. Carmichael worked closely with Dr. King, they did not always agree on strategy. For Dr. King nonviolence was a deeply held and religiously sourced principle – nonviolence was necessary to prevent “internal violence of the spirit.”3 On the other hand, Mr. Carmichael viewed nonviolence as more of a tactic as opposed to a core value. The day after Dr. King was killed, Mr. Carmichael held a press conference where he said that “White America made its biggest mistake…because when she killed Dr. King last night she killed all reasonable hope.”4 Mr. Carmichael went on to say that when “White America” killed the nonviolent figurehead of the Civil Rights Movement it “opened the eyes of every black man in this country” to the fact that nonviolence could not be effective against white racists and that they “have to get guns.”5

As people across the country slowly found out what had happened they gathered in the streets to share in their shock, grief and anger. Black Americans across the country began to demonstrate in the streets and soon those demonstrations turned violent.6 For many it was impossible not to conclude that Dr. King’s assassination meant that nonviolence had failed. Although some undoubtedly shared Mr. Kennedy’s view, the murder of Dr. King proved to be a bridge too far:

“When White America got rid of Marcus Garvey she did it and she said he was an extremist, he was crazy. When they got rid of Brother Malcolm X they said he was preaching hate, he deserved what he got. But when they got rid of Brother Martin Luther King they had absolutely no reason to do so.”7

The riots in the following weeks demonstrated that Mr. Carmichael was right in there was no way to hold back the overpowering pain of Dr. King’s death. Among others, the cities of Washington, DC, Baltimore burned. More than 2,500 people were injured and more than 15,000 people were arrested. Mr. Carmichael was wrong, though, that there would be violence directed at whites or that there would be planned “retaliation for the deaths of [their] leaders…in the streets.”8

Mr. Carmichael did prove to be right that Dr. King’s assassination would lead to violence, but the violent retaliation he predicted never happened. “White America” had “declared war”9 on the Civil Rights Movement, but Black America somehow found the courage, love and cohesion to continue its battle for freedom that honored Dr. King’s legacy. In the same year that Dr. King was assassinated the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was passed, one of the most important pieces of Civil Rights legislation of the era. In fact, “Both opponents and supporters of the 1968 Act saw it as a direct response to King’s assassination, and secondarily of the riots that broke out in some cities in reactions of grief, anger, and despair.”10 Ironically, Carmichael was correct that “White America will live to cry that she killed Dr. King last night”11 – not because it started incited violence between the races but rather because Dr. King’s memory would lead to massive and continued white support of the Civil Rights movement.

Throughout King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement he used violence and cruelty by whites in power to gain public support in the media and in the north, beginning with his role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and ending, tragically, with his assassination in 1964. The cruelty and evil of King’s assassination were so great that even many of his closest allies were doubtful that black Americans could withstand it but, despite the riots that happened, ultimately one of King’s first lessons proved true even as it related to his own murder.

Notes
1 “Statement on Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Speech, Indiana, Indianapolis, April 4, 1968. Accessed March 22, 2017.

2 “Statement on Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

3 Martin Luther King and James Melvin. Washington, A testament of hope: the essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1991), 8.

4 Stokely Carmichael, “Stokely Carmichael on Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” (speech, April 5, 1968), accessed March 22, 2017, http://www.history.com/speeches/stokely-carmichael-on-assassination-of-martin-luther-king-jr.

5 “Stokely Carmichael on Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”

6 Risen, Clay. A nation on fire: America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.

7 “Stokely Carmichael on Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”

8 “Stokely Carmichael on Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”

9 “Stokely Carmichael on Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”

10 “Unfinished Business: The Civil Rights Movement After King,” Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, , accessed May 04, 2017,

11 “Stokely Carmichael on Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.”

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