Asad Haider explores the concepts of peace and justice in the thought of Martin Luther King. This article was first published by Viewpoint Magazine.
The 1992 rebellions of Los Angeles introduced the world to a slogan: “no justice, no peace.” It originated some years earlier, possibly during protests against the murder of Michael Griffith by a white racist mob in Howard Beach, Queens, and has been repeated since at every demonstration against police violence.
This popular slogan, however, is quite obviously in tension with the voices of self-appointed leaders and media representatives who insist that protests must remain “peaceful.” The charming nickname assigned to them by other protestors, the “peace police,” is revealing of this tension.
The recent proclamation of George W. Bush, to take one especially striking example, also sets out a perspective on justice and peace, which is intended to reconcile the two. He says that “lasting justice will only come by peaceful means,” adding that “looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress.” According to Bush, who launched the so-called War on Terror, “we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all.”
These different and incompatible usages of the terms “justice” and “peace” suggest that they are in themselves contradictory, and divide into different meanings.
Martin Luther King, who is frequently invoked today as a moral authority on the struggle against racism, was a political thinker of both peace and justice. His commentary is important to revisit today, since he is seen both as a leading advocate for the necessity of nonviolence, and a sympathetic critic of the urban rebellions of the 1960s who recognized that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Nevertheless, there was something much deeper and more subversive in King’s thinking on riots, which we should consider before proceeding to the categories of justice and peace. Despite how he is misread today, King’s criticism of the riots stemmed from a revolutionary perspective — that is, in his view they were not revolutionary enough. This is the only vantage point from which we can interpret his analysis of riots and its contemporary validity.
In his commentary on the riots of the mid-1960s, King continually made the move of setting aside moral considerations to prioritize strategic ones. At the moral level, he insisted that it was necessary to indict the white power structure before making any criticism of the riot. “Riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice,” he told a group of black realtors in San Francisco in 1967. They were also caused “by a national administration more concerned about winning the war in Vietnam than the war against poverty right here at home.”
In a 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “The Crisis in America’s Cities,” he said that it was “the policy makers of the white society” who had “caused the darkness; they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty.” His conclusion was unequivocal: “Let us say it boldly that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.”
Taking great distance from those today who would like to limit the meaning of the uprisings to a response to isolated incidents of police discrimination, King listed several underlying causes of the riots: white backlash, unemployment, the pervasiveness of discrimination, war, and the impoverished conditions of urban life.
Citing the high rates of unemployment among black people in cities, and the especially high rates among black youth, King made a point that we should recall as we face our own mountain of unemployment claims: “It is not accidental that the major actors in all the outbreaks were the youth. With most of their lives yet to live, the slamming of doors in their faces could be expected to induce rage and rebellion.”
Understanding the connection between unemployment and “rage and rebellion,” King declined to engage in the hand-wringing of contemporary pundits over property destruction. While he did not endorse those moments when rioters broke windows and looted stores, he also made a point of distinguishing property destruction from violence against people:
The vast majority who actively participated were remarkably discriminating in avoiding harm to persons, venting their anger by appropriating or destroying property. There is an ironic purpose in this choice; to attack a society that appears to cherish property above people, the worst wounds to inflict on it are those to property.
So King’s thinking on the riots always started from the underlying structure of society. But King’s next question was at the level of strategy and organization, to address the situation of the movement against racism as it tried to shift its focus towards the urban north, where the rebellions were proliferating. This required the movement to adapt the tactics it had relied on up to that point. “Nonviolence must be adapted to urban conditions and urban moods,” King said. “Nonviolent protest must now mature to a new level.” The situation was drastically different than it had been in the South:
Nonviolent action in the South was effective because any form of social movement by Negroes upset the status quo. When Negroes merely marched in Southern streets it was close to rebellion. In the urban communities marches are less disquieting because they are not considered rebellions and secondly, because the normal turbulence of cities absorbs them as merely transitory drama which is ordinary in city life.
In the North, then, it would be necessary to take civil disobedience to a higher level:
To raise protest to an appropriate level for cities and to invest it with aggressive but nonviolent qualities, it is necessary to adopt civil disobedience. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be longer-lasting, costly to the society but not wantonly destructive. Moreover, it is more difficult for government to quell it by superior force. Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force. It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be.
This “mass civil disobedience,” he outlined in his comments at a 1968 SCLC organizing retreat, would have to be more than “a statement to the larger society”; it would have to constitute “a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point.” It was from the strategic perspective of organizing a force that could interrupt the functioning of society, then, that King made his criticism of riots: “The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win… Hence, riots are not revolutionary.”
What would be revolutionary would be a form of mass civil disobedience adapted to northern conditions, and this could not be limited to legal, orderly marches, and it could not be limited to reforms within the existing social structure. “We in SCLC must work out programs to bring the social change movements through from their early and now inadequate protest phase to a stage of massive, active, nonviolent resistance to the evils of the modern system,” King said at the SCLC retreat. “Our economy must become more person-centered than property-centered and profit-centered.” In order to achieve this, he said, “we must formulate a program and we must fashion the new tactics which do not count on government goodwill but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice.”
King’s analysis of riots was at a far greater level of nuance and subtlety than most of what we hear in the contemporary media. Whether his strategic assessment was correct is a separate question, which can be debated. But it is incumbent on those who condemn the uprisings today to provide another answer to King’s strategic questions, to propose another plan for the disruption of society comparable to the strategy of mass civil disobedience. We are unlikely to see many such proposals, because it is more likely that those who condemn the uprisings are hoping to avoid social disruption, as King’s criticism of white moderates makes clear.
Having emphasized the strategic character of King’s outlook, let’s consider how he forces us to rethink the categories of justice and peace. The first and most straightforward aspect of “justice” is criminal justice, and claiming that there is “no justice” is a criticism of the inconsistent application of what should be a consistent ideal — that is, it exposes the inconsistent application of the punitive and carceral state, which declines to punish certain murders, especially the murder of black people by police. If this is all the phrase “no justice” meant, it would be entirely consistent with an appeal to what Bush calls “the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system.”
But for King, justice meant something more than that, and protestors who call out “no justice” in the rebellions also mean something more. One of the most radical and comprehensive statements of this view came at the commemoration of the 100th birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1968, where King remarked that “Dr. Du Bois’ greatest virtue was his committed empathy with all the oppressed and his divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice.” This dissatisfaction was at the core of justice:
Today we are still challenged to be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every man can have food and material necessities for his body, culture and education for his mind, freedom and human dignity for his spirit. Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. Let us be dissatisfied until brotherhood is no longer a meaningless word at the end of a prayer but the first order of business on every legislative agenda. Let us be dissatisfied until our brother of the Third World — Asia, Africa, and Latin America — will no longer be the victim of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Let us be dissatisfied until this pending cosmic elegy will be transformed into a creative psalm of peace and “justice will roll down like waters from a mighty stream.”
King never ceased to quote this passage from Amos 5:24, noting in his famous 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that Amos was “an extremist for justice.” Justice has certain traits that go beyond the first conception of justice, which is limited to pointing out inconsistencies. Instead, justice is the persistent form of “divine dissatisfaction with all forms of injustice,” and is therefore itself an inconsistency with injustice. This dissatisfaction is thoroughgoing, referring not only to the specific case or immediate demand, but the global and total situation of injustice generated by the unjust ordering of society. It criticizes injustice from the vantage point of a just society, which does not yet exist and is visible only in the struggles of the oppressed to overcome injustice.
In the “Letter” King also identified two forms of peace, in his response to the “white moderate,” who he characterizes as “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom.” The white moderate “is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” and “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
This “absence of tension” can be understood as the peace which belongs to the pair of “peace and security,” which, since Thomas Hobbes, has represented in political philosophy the need for the power of the state. “Peace and security” means the police. In this sense, King wrote, “whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’” This slur, wielded against the Civil Rights Movement, has never gone away, as today protestors are continually slandered on the media as being “outside agitators.” King’s rejection of the notion of the “outside agitator” in the “Letter” should now be more widely known, and it relies on the universal and persistent character of his dissatisfaction with injustice:
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Let’s return to King’s “positive peace,” which is the peace defined by the “presence of justice.” When King spoke of this positive peace, he was also speaking of a “disturbance of the peace”: justice suspends the state of “peace and security.”
It is certainly true that King viewed this disturbance of the peace as “nonviolent.” However, in emphasizing its peaceful character, he again had to argue against the white moderates, because they charged that in violating the law, the Civil Rights Movement was itself provoking the violent reaction of the police and thus were responsible for it. It is precisely the charge repeated today to criticize acts of property destruction and looting as provocations of police violence, making the protestors themselves responsible for the violent reaction of the police. King unambiguously rejected this logic:
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?
Nevertheless, the nonviolent protest envisaged by King was not viewed by the “white moderate” as “peaceful,” and the state did not see it this way either. As we have seen, following the urban rebellions that came after the Civil Rights Movement, King believed that the only path forward was to engage in a larger scale of mass civil disobedience. King remained committed to mass direct action on principle even as his advisers, like Bayard Rustin, insisted on making a shift towards policy-making, and criticized King publicly. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign and the campaign against the Vietnam War, King wanted to shut down traffic in Washington, DC.
As David Garrow recounts in Bearing the Cross, the Lyndon B. Johnson White House did not view this a “peaceful” tactic. An internal memo by Larry Temple, White House Counsel to President, compared King to the “violent” figures of Black Power: “We have permitted the Stokely Carmichaels, the Rap Browns, and the Martin Luther Kings to cloak themselves in an aura of respectability to which they are not entitled.” The tactic of civil disobedience was explicitly criminalized; the white moderate did not believe in the existence of civil disobedience, and categorized it along with violence as criminality:
When Martin Luther King talks about violating the law by obstructing the flow of traffic in Washington or stopping the operations of this government, he is talking about criminal disobedience… “Civil disobedience” is a complete misnomer. There is no such thing… As the time nears for Dr. King’s April activities, I hope the President will publicly unmask this type of conduct for what it really is.
It is not so simple, then, to isolate unitary conceptions of peace and justice, and the relations between them. For King, nonviolence was first and foremost a tactic of political struggle, but it was also a moral principle. However, we have to understand the analytical distinction between these two different levels of nonviolence. Indeed, nonviolence could conceivably be adopted as a tactic even if one was not morally committed to nonviolence. In fact, we can see an acknowledgment of this possibility in the speeches of Malcolm X, who memorably rejected peace as a moral principle in this sense:
There is nothing in our book, the Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion. In fact, that’s that old-time religion… We should be peaceful, law-abiding — but the time has come for the American Negro to fight back in self-defense whenever and wherever he is being unjustly and unlawfully attacked.
In other words, Malcolm X pointed out that there was a moral imperative to self-defense, which overcame the moral imperative to be peaceful. He argued just as strongly that revolution was an inherently violent process: “Historically you just don’t have a peaceful revolution. Revolutions are bloody, revolutions are violent, revolutions cause bloodshed and death follows in their paths.” However, he nevertheless allowed that it was possible that a revolution without bloodshed could occur in the United States, if black people were granted the right to vote and could use their suffrage to change the political structure, allowing them to gain the control of land that he viewed as the basis of all revolution. A nonviolent revolutionary strategy thus was strategically possible, even if nonviolence was not morally required. But if the scale of change Malcolm X wanted to achieve by voting did not turn out to be possible, the choice between “the ballot or the bullet” would be decided in favor of the latter.
As Hawa Allen has recently pointed out in a powerful historical essay, the Insurrection Act, deeply imbricated in the history of racism in the United States, was invoked to use military force to repress the riots that came after King’s assasination. Throughout the complicated history of the Act, it becomes clear that the legal decision whether a form of unrest constitutes an insurrection lies in the hands of the sovereign state. By deciding that a given instance of civil unrest is a threat to the existing legal order, the sovereign takes both unrest and its repression into a zone of illegality and violence.
All civil disobedience, King argued as early as the “Letter,” was a deliberate violation of unjust laws, and therefore constituted a suspension of the legal order. In his “Crisis” address the year before his assasination, King directly addressed the topic of insurrection. He said of the urban rebellions:
The outbursts cannot be considered an insurrection, because insurrections are organized and can sustain themselves for more than a few days. The riots are powered by spontaneous bitter emotions and therefore die out rapidly.
Whether this is true of today’s uprisings is once again a strategic and organizational question, rather than a moral one. A moral judgment on property destruction is not relevant to the discussion of the most appropriate tactics; and even the moral imperative of nonviolence has to be critically evaluated in light of the moral imperative of self-defense. Which tactics are appropriate for today’s rebellions can only be determined by a strategic and organizational analysis along the lines King proposed, and not according to the moral judgment which he subordinated to that analysis. In fact, with news that Los Angeles is considering cuts in police department funding, Minneapolis city council members are openly considering disbanding the police force, and curfews are being lifted in several cities, there are good reasons to believe that the current riots are strategically effective.
“No justice, no peace,” from King’s vantage point, means that there is no positive peace without justice. Therefore in the context of injustice, there can be no negative peace, in the sense that there must be tension, there must be a “disturbance of the peace” in order to have the presence of justice. Today, when protestors shout “no justice, no peace,” we should understand this as a political principle which takes primacy over the abstract conception of a “peaceful protest.” No protest is unambiguously peaceful, for if it is oriented strategically and organizationally towards the transformation of society, it will necessarily constitute a disturbance of the peace. The disturbance of the peace will continue as long as there is injustice; so “no justice, no peace,” is a slogan which represents the intransigent pursuit of justice, against all the forces of containment wielded by the state, against the voices of the white moderates who would blame protestors for the violence of the police, and against all those who fail to grasp King’s lasting message that a politics of overcoming injustice is a politics of revolutionary change.
As Trump threatens to invoke the Insurrection Act to quell the ongoing rebellion, we should revisit King’s strategic and organizational thought, and develop the slogan “no justice, no peace” towards a strategy of sustained insurrection.