Last Saturday, the US observed “Martin Luther King Day”, the birthday of the great fighter for equality of treatment and opportunity for Americans of African descent. This year’s commemoration was especially significant, coming as it did at a time of a re-evaluation of the progress in race relations that was thought to have ensued in the wake of Dr King’s life’s work. What is clear is privilege and power always seek to defend themselves against the incursions of those that would insist on the inalienable right of all human beings to live in dignity, which is impossible in the face of gross inequalities.
Power and privilege would constantly find ways to re-inscribe their insidious relations of domination and submission in the institutions of society, and it behoves those seeking a just world and the “good life” to always be vigilant and ready to struggle. When Martin Luther King was a student in college, he was already deeply troubled by the unequal treatment meted out to African-Americans by the power structure, controlled by White America. Determined to do something about this injustice, he was struck by the message of non-violent struggle, or “satyagraha”, utilised by Mahatma Gandhi in his fight in India against the British, between 1915-1948.
“Satya” means “truth” and “graha” means “force”, and is proposes an active “truth-force” that is deployed against the forces of oppression. “Nonviolent resistance does resist,” Dr King wrote. “It is not a method of stagnant passivity. While the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive towards his opponent, his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil; it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.”
It is of more than passing interest that Gandhi invented satyagraha in South Africa, where he spent twenty years until he returned to India in 1915. In South Africa, he was assailed by the institutionalised racism that manifested itself most egregiously in segregation between the races in transportation and housing. As an Indian professional – he was a lawyer by profession – the South African authorities treated him identically to the indentured Indians who had been brought to work on the sugar plantations and coal mines. His “wake-up call” came when he was kicked off a train to make way for a white South African, even though he had purchased a first-class ticket.
Dr King and African-Americans such as Rosa Parks would confront an analogous situation in the American South.
While it might not be explicitly acknowledged, modern struggles against inequality, such as “Black Lives Matter”, all take their inspiration from the example of Dr King, and by extension Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha contraposes its methodology to the way of violence that is still the dominant reaction to those that defend privilege and power. Satyagraha is very sensitive to means and ends.
“Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win friendship and understanding,” King said. “The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through non-cooperation or boycotts, but he realises that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent… The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
Dr King summarised his methodology of non-violent resistance in six steps. One begins by becoming thoroughly informed about the injustice, and then educating others about it. Teaching is through action rather than words, and in this way, one transforms oneself. Negotiations are then opened up with opponents, using win-win scenarios, and only if unsuccessful, direct action such as sit-ins, marches, petitions etc, are launched. Finally, as Mandela demonstrated in South Africa, one attempts to reconcile with one’s opponents since, ultimately, we have to live together and build our nation together. Restorative Justice can heal many wounds.