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Martin Luther
King did not come to his conclusions about nonviolence entirely on his own.  He had the personal strength to follow
this path, but he also stood in a long noble and very interesting tradition with deep roots in America.  King looked at Mahatmas Gandhi as the teacher who first opened his eyes as to what nonviolence could create. Through nonviolent means Gandhi achieved India’s independence
from British rule.  His commitment
to nonviolence was not able to bridge the differences between Hindus and
Muslims, but it proved capable of winning the freedom of a big part of the
world’s population from colonial rule.

King was
transformed by reading Gandhi, writing


As
I read, I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance.
As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the
power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its
potency in the area of social reform.

The
‘turn-the-other-cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love-your-enemies’ philosophy, I
felt, were only valid when individuals were in conflict with other individuals;
when racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach
seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I
was.

Gandhi in turn learned
crucial elements of his strategy from Henry David Thoreau.   As Gandhi said’ “Thoreau was a
great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he
taught nothing he was not prepared to practise in himself. … He went to gaol
for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has,
therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time.
Its incisive logic is unanswerable.”

Martin Luther
King also was similarly influenced and inspired by Thoreau, writing in his Autobiography
 

I became convinced that
noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with
good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this
idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal
witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.

Thoreau’s essay
on Civil Disobedience  is one of America’s greatest gifts to the world. The United States had attacked
Mexico, seeking to annex large portions of its territory.  The reasons was to enlarge the slave
states and killing innocent people was then, as today, acceptable “collateral
damage.”

The war,
America’s first aggressive war against anyone other than the Indian tribes,
generated an enormous protest movement in the north.   Thoreau was one such protester, and when taxed to pay
for the war, refused.  He was sent
to jail. He wrote On Civil Disobedience as a result. 

If one were to
tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign
commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an
ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and
possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a
great evil to make a stir about it. But when . . . oppression and robbery are
organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other
words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be
the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and
conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is
not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty
the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but
ours is the invading army.

Martin Luther
King to Mahatmas Gandhi to Henry David Thoreau: an inspiring lineage of men who
were not perfect because none of us are, but whose shortcomings were dwarfed by their achievements for
the good of humanity. 

At this time
when the energy of violence is rising, when it acts like a drug for a certain
percentage of our population who get as high from its energy as a loser on
meth, we need to be very clear that no good will come from this road and stand
strongly against it.  I myself am
not quite a pacifist.  I will use
violence to defend others.  But
when and if it comes to that, we are caught between one failure and arguably a
greater one, and nothing more.

This day
honoring Martin Luther King, jr. is a fine one to remind ourselves of these
realities.

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