Dr. King on Marching

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s thoughts on marching from the 1966 essay “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” followed by a brief comment:

When Negroes marched, so did the nation. The power of the nonviolent march is indeed a mystery. It is always surprising that a few hundred Negroes marching can produce such a reaction across the nation. When marches are carefully organized around well-defined issues, they represent the power which Victor Hugo phrased as the most powerful force in the world, “an idea whose time has come.” Marching feet announce that time has come for a given idea. When the idea is a sound one, the cause a just one, and the demonstration a righteous one, change will be forthcoming. But if any of these conditions are not present, the power for change is missing also. A thousand people demonstrating for the right to use heroin would have little effect. By the same token, a group of ten thousand marching in anger against a police station and cussing out the police chief will do very little to bring respect, dignity and unbiased law enforcement. Such a demonstration would only produce fear and bring about an addition of forces to the station and more oppressive methods by the police.

Marches must continue in the future, and they must be the kind of marches that bring about the desired result. But the march is not a “one shot” victory-producing method. One march is seldom successful, and as my good friend Kenneth Clark points out in Dark Ghetto, it can serve merely to let off steam and siphon off the energy which is necessary to produce change. However, when marching is seen as a part of a program to dramatize an evil, to mobilize the forces of good will, and to generate pressure and power for change, marches will continue to be effective.

Our experience is that marches must continue over a period of thirty to forty-five days to produce any meaningful results. They must also be of sufficient size to produce some inconvenience to the forces in power or they go unnoticed. In other words, they must demand the attention of the press, for it is the press which interprets the issue to the community at large and thereby sets in motion the machinery for change.

For those who would march–and I am thinking especially of those outside Ferguson who would like to show solidarity and take a stand for justice in their own neighborhood: We have to be clear about what we want and why, and we have to vigilantly defend the integrity of the demonstration. Most importantly, we have to plan for months or years of hard reconciling work in our neighborhoods.

For those who are frustrated with the demonstrations: A few angry souls take advantage of the marches in order to get away with robbery. This is a lack of integrity. But it is no excuse for us if in anger we take advantage of the chaos in order to get away with being dismissive of the concerns of our neighbors. This too is a lack of integrity. In other words, it’s not right to read Dr. King’s words as an indictment of Ferguson protesters, as if that gets us off the hook for pursuing justice. We cannot say, “Because a few people looted the plea for justice in invalidated.” Our responsibility to promote justice, love mercy, and walk humbly is unchanged.