MLK and Ghandi Today, Can Non-Violence and People Power Work?

In the 20th Century two groups of oppressed people were led to greater freedom by two different men in two different places. The circumstances, other than shared oppression, were wholly different. But but both movements were successful, to a large and undeniable extent. Will this method of change work today?

Yes it will.

But only if the People choose to make it work. And only if the People learn not just the lessons and the methods of non-violent change….but also learn the lessons of how that changed was stopped.

If the method of non-violent change was so successful, why are we not practicing it now in large numbers to fight the current battle of Justice vs. Oppression?

What is lacking is not the method, but someone to lead the movement.

Without the charismatic presence of Ghandi and MLK, neither movement would have succeeded. The People rallied around them and bought into nonviolence because of their personal examples and their personal sacrifices. But Ghandi took on the whole British Empire. And King took on a whole culture. And won.  

In that sense, the ‘enemy’ doesn’t matter. It was and is the people finding a way to unite to fight whatever monolithic force is on the horizon that matters. The People united can never be defeated. The only question is how to unite the people.

In another sense…..the fact that they were both assassinated… it does matter, very much. Since MLK …and Malcom … and JFK ….and RFK were all killed, you’ll notice that no strong charismatic leader that has the power to unite people has emerged and gained power and been able to lead. You’ll notice that any strong leader of a populist movement is destroyed either through violence, or now in our modern age by being smeared and discredited. And you will notice that for now at least, the entrenched interests, the establishment, is more powerful than ever and is constantly seeking to gain new and expanded powers over The People.

Coincidence or conspiracy? That really doesn’t matter, much, either. What really matters is that all of these men, these very prominent agents for real popular change were cut down, and the movements that they led were stopped because of it. Read this excellent essay by TomP over at Dkos and you will see that Martin was just about to lead a Poor People’s Campaign. To steal some of Tom’s quotes    

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign.

   He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington – engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be – until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights.

   Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

   King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” – appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”

, branching out from fighting just racism to fighting all oppression of the weak by the strong….when he was killed.

“There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…”


He had also begun actively opposing the Vietnam War….and by extension those in government and financial power structure who were propagating it and profiting from it.

The ‘establishment’ has learned the lessons of these, for the sake of argument, coincidental assassinations well. To stop meaningful change, cut off the head of the movement. As I said, today we see this in the tactics of Fox News and their cohorts, who eagerly smear and swiftboat anyone who steps up to lead…or even just challenge the status quo.

Now the question is, what is our next lesson, what is our next move?

For there can no longer be any doubt of the battle that we are engaged in, the battle of our time. Under George Bush any pretensions have been stripped. There is no doubt that the battle of Oppression vs. Justice and Equality continues as a battle between the entrenched financial and political power structure versus The People.

So…what hope does a non-violent transformative People’s Movement have?

The pat and obvious though so far unrealized answer would be a de-centralized, leaderless movement, that doesn’t rest its hopes for success solely on the charisma and leadership of one man. The internet is obviously a huge and important tool to achieve that, but it has yet to reach maturity or fruition. Will it?

And interestingly enough, a new young charismatic leader who preaches (literally!) a new unity has come on the scene. Just when societal and economic conditions have made the country ripe for change. This time leading not a societal movement….but a politically based one. In some ways, the fulfillment of some of the Dreams of Dr. King. But also evoking fears for his safety.

And interestingly as well, he is urging us to discard the old battles….even as the ripples and the echoes of these battles that made his candidacy possible swirl around him.

Is Obama message of unity the new iteration of a Peoples Movement? Or, thinking cynically, the co-option of it by the powerful interests that he will most likely need the backing of to succeed? CAN he succeed without those interests if The People buy in to his campaign?

Though it may be crass or impolitic or perhaps TOO political to ask the question on MLK’s day of celebration…..the question must be asked. Do we invest again in a single man to lead us? I personally am torn by ALL the possibilities presented, both hopeful and fearful.

The times don’t get much more interesting than this.


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  1. that make me nervous about pressing the button on. Not because of the subject matter….but wondering if I have expressed myself well enough to avoid big misunderstandings.

    As always, please don’t hesitate to criticize and challenge me. Hopefully I am can make up in the discussion of the essay for anything unclear or inaccurate.

  2. in this heated primary atmosphere, I am not explicitly endorsing Obama over any other candidate.

    But the possibilities DO intrigue me greatly, I admit.

  3. I don’t look at Obama as the leader of a movement… I look at him as a politician, possibly a statesman, operating within the hall s of power.

    I certainly don’t mean this as criticism. I look for movement leaders to operate outside of the existing governmental/political system, outside of the very real constraints of being in power.

    There is something extremely conventional about running government, and it’s inherent in being either an executive or legislator– there is a structure in place in which one has to operate, laws to pass and laws to uphold.

    With a movement, the constraint disappears. As such, for example, Dr. King and other civil rights movement leaders could and did call for folks to march on Washington, called for a bus boycot, and was able to force significant change by operating OUTSIDE of the laws… and getting arrested and beaten for it, ultimately murdeed, in Dr. King’s case.

    In India, Ghandi did not become a part of the government, but he stayed outside and put pressure on all of the actors until his assassination. He regularly broke the laws and was jailed for it, because he was NOT part of the system.

    Obama wants to lead the system. This puts him on the inside, where only incremental change can be fomented. Admittedly, there’s a need for some large increments, but the system, the social and political system, has tremendous power to adjust.

    King, on the other hand, along with Ghandi, were able to force radical change and radical movement by being outside.

    I don’t have a dog in the fight, other than the democratic nominee. But whomever is elected will have the constraints of leading the country, instead of being on the outside yelling louder.

    just my .02

  4. …there seem to be a lot of questions posed 🙂  

    Whether Obama is a potential FDR/Gorbachev figure, or just another fast talking hope salesman…well, I guess we have to buy a ticket to find out.  It is true that he has no choice but to tiptoe carefully and make all the right noises; but he’s as much an unknown to the monied classes as the rest of us, in some ways.  He might be a revolutionary figure.   Probably not.  But it’s a nice thought, anyway.

    There are all these different ways societies seem to move toward social justice, away from it…while MLK’s birthday and all the inspiring writing should be uplifting, the Moody’s report today on US bond ratings was downright creepy.  Maybe the US doesn’t get to sort out social justice until the post-WWII party ends.

    Woof woof…it’s a beautiful day outside.  Sorry to go on…

    • feline on January 21, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    That you mention I think are key here.  Charisma and calls for unity are important, but there’s no substitute for rolling up one’s sleeves and actually engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience.  I think that people identified with Gandhi and King because they participated directly in campaigns with the people at considerable risk to themselves – marching, sitting, fasting, going to jail – I would love for Obama to be that leader, but honestly I just don’t see or expect it.

    I would also like to think that the internet can be a tool for change; time will tell, perhaps, but again I don’t think there’s any substitute for rolling up one’s sleeves and directly participating in nonviolent civil disobedience.  Unfortunately, the media and political establishment have adapted, and such movements have had more difficulty gaining traction in our current climate.

    You ask some important questions.

    I also ask myself if we need a leader at this point, and I keep coming back to thinking that we can’t afford not to act – with or without one, and with or without support from media or the internet.

  5. in ways we can’t predict.  I expect the decentralization of talk is very significant and important, and will be impossible to prevent, however much certain interests might try.

    History tends to focus on individuals, as doing so makes history easier to tell, but the civil rights movement was not as centralized as all that.  Leaders don’t necessarily mean centralization; a point I assume Dr. King would have emphasized.

    Point being, we can have both, decentralized structures and leaders to appear on TV.  I guess that means the question is “do we want leaders”?  Are they a plus or a minus, when they are not strictly speaking needed?

    I have noticed, as you have, the lack of African American leaders of real stature on the national scene in recent years, Obama aside.  The same could be said for other groups.  I wonder if having them around would be an improvement.  It seems like it would have to be.

  6. clear in my heart and mind that two examples of Ghandhi and Martin Luther King are appropriate in today’s political moment of time in America. A color blind, level playing field for men and women, black and white and all shades in between is a  goal worth pursuing.  It again, I believe is the differecne between revolution and evolution.

    Soaring rhetoric and profound genralities are wonderfully inspirational but as a woman who has had to keep food on the table for her children and balance the books i tend to prefer to deal in specifics and attainable goals. Maybe not so inspiring but it helped me and my family to survive relatively intact (apart from being barking mad of course!)

    With great respect you are mixing apples and oranges. Ghandhi was fighting for a complicated release by his people from a specific form of British imperialism in India.  Dr. King was fighting for the release of his people, meaning black people from  the dominance of the white culture and for legal equality of their civil rights in America.

    Those are very specific goals to fight for.  What you are indicating is that we, the people of America, need to have a leader  to follow in their fight for a more nebulous    battle for Justice vs Oppression.  for Christ’s sake we have not even been able to pass an Equal Bill of Rights for Women!!!!

    A momentously worthy cause to be sure. But whose Justice? whose Oppression? and is that for Americans only? or is it for Africans, Indians, Indonesians, Russians, French, Turks, Iraquis – is it for men and women and children?  The vicious antipathy still being shown in this nation against ‘the other’ especially the foreign born other, and the resistance to globalisation because as it raises the living standards from Jakarta to Rio De Janeiro so it lowers the living standards in Detroit and Kansas City.  The resistance is so virulent it has led a degree of xenophobia I have not seen before in this country.

    Just as over simplifying cliches by saying one man’s justice is another man’s oppression the truth is that as one boat rises another boat sinks.  And the only absolute truth of all this is that this time around is that we are all in the same boat this time and some of us will sink and some of us will swim.  It is the actual planet itself that is in peril of extinction, not just the humna species that is causing the problem.

    In fact in some ironic subliminal fashion the very fact of Barack Obama’s mixed heritage accentuates this fact, as has George w’ds careless opening of the Pandora’s box of middle East tensions and hatreds. Should the equality and unity Obama says he is working for all encompassing? Does he want equality for the poor of Lagos as well as the poor and oppressed of Baltimore?  Is that what America means by justice vs oppression?

    Keep on musing Buhdy, it is your dharma and our karma.

    • documel on January 22, 2008 at 12:05 am

    He is not MLK–nor DuBois–he is running as an Oreo.  Whether that’s just politics or reality, I don’t know.  He doesn’t mention NOLA too often–or the incarceration of 1/3 of all brothas.  Maybe he’s afraid that will scare off white America–but it’s not a leadership approach to racial harmony.  Jesse Jackson ran a more inspiring campaign back in the day–and lost.

  7. …and re-view the 04/04/67 speech of MLK at the Riverside Church…just listen…just hear …..

    …..then feel it in our hearts…..

    Then, right at this moment, we don’t need words, though we will need them again later, BUT right at this moment…..

    …we don’t need words or analysis…

    We only need to know that the bombs dropping in Iraq are exploding right here, in our streets right here…

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