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The Ways of Meeting Oppression

■ Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) was the leading spokesman for the rights of African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s before his assassination in 1968. He established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or- ganized many civil rights demonstrations, and opposed the Vietnam War and the draft. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the following essay, taken from his
Strive toward Freedom (1958), King classifies the three ways that oppressed people throughout history have reacted to their oppressors. As you read, pay particular attention to how King orders his discussion of the three types of oppression to support his argument and the conclusion he presents in paragraph 8.

Reflecting on What You Know

Isaac Asimov once said, “Violence is the last refuge of the incom- petent.” What are your thoughts on the reasons for violent behav- ior on either a personal or a national level? Is violence ever justified? If so, under what circumstances?

Oppressed people deal with their oppression in three characteristic 1 ways. One way is acquiescence: the oppressed resign themselves
to their doom. They tacitly adjust themselves to oppression, and thereby become conditioned to it. In every movement toward freedom some of
the oppressed prefer to remain oppressed. Almost 2800 years ago Moses1 set out to lead the children of Israel from the slavery of Egypt
to the freedom of the promised land. He soon discovered that slaves

1Moses: a Hebrew prophet, teacher, and leader in the fourteenth to thirteenth centuries b.c.e.




do not always welcome their deliverers. They become accustomed to being slaves. They would rather bear those ills they have, as Shakespeare pointed out, than flee to others that they know not of. They prefer the “fleshpots of Egypt” to the ordeals of emancipation.

There is such a thing as the freedom of exhaustion. Some people 2 are so worn down by the yoke of oppression that they give up. A few years ago in the slum areas of Atlanta, a Negro guitarist used to sing almost daily: “Been down so long that down don’t bother me.”2 This
is the type of negative freedom and resignation that often engulfs the
life of the oppressed.

But this is not the way out. To accept passively an unjust system 3 is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber. Religion reminds every man that he is his brother’s keeper. To accept injustice or segre- gation passively is to say to the oppressor that his actions are morally right. It is a way of allowing his conscience to fall asleep. At this moment the oppressed fails to be his brother’s keeper. So acquies- cence—while often the easier way—is not the moral way. It is the way of the coward. The Negro cannot win the respect of his oppres-
sor by acquiescing; he merely increases the oppressor’s arrogance and contempt. Acquiescence is interpreted as proof of the Negro’s inferi- ority. The Negro cannot win the respect of the white people of the South or the peoples of the world if he is willing to sell the future of
his children for his personal and immediate comfort and safety.

A second way that oppressed people sometimes deal with oppres- 4 sion is to resort to physical violence and corroding hatred. Violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, vio- lence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical 5 and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending
in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves every- body blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than

2“Been down . . . bother me”: lyric possibly adapted from “Stormy Blues” by American jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915–1959).


King / The Ways of Meeting Oppression 467

to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. A voice echoes through time saying to every potential Peter, “Put up your sword.”3 History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations that failed to follow this command.

If the American Negro and other victims of oppression succumb 6 to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for freedom, future generations will be the recipients of a desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence is not the way.

The third way open to oppressed people in their quest for free- 7 dom is the way of nonviolent resistance. Like the synthesis in Hegelian4 philosophy, the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks
to reconcile the truths of two opposites—acquiescence and vio- lence—while avoiding the extremes and immoralities of both. The nonviolent resister agrees with the person who acquiesces that one should not be physically aggressive toward his opponent; but he bal- ances the equation by agreeing with the person of violence that evil must be resisted. He avoids the nonresistance of the former and the violent resistance of the latter. With nonviolent resistance, no individ-

ual or group need submit to any wrong, nor need anyone resort to violence in order to right a wrong.

It seems to me that this is the method that must guide the actions 8 of the Negro in the present crisis in race relations. Through nonvio- lent resistance the Negro will be able to rise to the noble height of op- posing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. The Negro must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature
as a citizen, but he must not use inferior methods to gain it. He must never come to terms with falsehood, malice, hate, or destruction.

Nonviolent resistance makes it possible for the Negro to remain 9 in the South and struggle for his rights. The Negro’s problem will not
be solved by running away. He cannot listen to the glib suggestion of those who would urge him to migrate en masse to other sections of

3“Put up your sword”: the apostle Peter had drawn his sword to defend Jesus from arrest; the voice was Jesus’s, who surrendered himself for trial and crucifixion (John 18:11).
4Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831): German philosopher.



the country. By grasping his great opportunity in the South he can make a lasting contribution to the moral strength of the nation and set a sublime example of courage for generations yet unborn.

By nonviolent resistance, the Negro can also enlist all men of 10 good will in his struggle for equality. The problem is not a purely racial one, with Negroes set against whites. In the end, it is not a struggle between people at all, but a tension between justice and in- justice. Nonviolent resistance is not aimed against oppressors but against oppression. Under its banner consciences, not racial groups, are enlisted.

Thinking Critically about This Reading

King states “There is such a thing as the freedom of exhaustion” (para- graph 2). Why, according to King, is this type of freedom “negative”?

Questions for Study and Discussion

  1. What is King’s thesis? (Glossary: Thesis)
  2. How does classifying the three types of resistance to oppressionhelp him develop his thesis?
  3. Why do you suppose King discusses acquiescence, violence, and nonviolent resistance in that order? What organizational princi- ple does he use to rank them?
  4. How does King’s organizational pattern help him build his argu- ment and support his thesis? Would his argument work as well if he changed the order of his discussion? Why or why not?
  5. King states that he favors nonviolent resistance over the other two ways of meeting oppression. What disadvantages does he see in meeting oppression with acquiescence or with violence?

Classroom Activity Using Division and Classification

Be prepared to discuss in class why you believe that division and clas- sification are important ways of thinking about everyday life. Give examples of how you use the two complementary strategies when you use a computer search engine, shop for DVDs on the Web, select items in your local supermarket, or look for textbooks in your college bookstore.

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Assignment Solutions