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"The Burning Truth in the South": MLK on Peaceful Student Protests

By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his speech “The Burning Truth in the South”, Martin Luther King, Jr. says the appeal of nonviolence has many facets. Though he wrote this speech half a century ago, we have been watching the facets of nonviolence at work again, this time against police brutality and racial injustice in Baltimore. The media frenzy centered on the purge riot of 27 April was inevitable. Violence, as always, elicits an immediate reaction, the most immediate attention. Up until the riot, the protests were peaceful—and still are. Student protesters Korey Johnson and John Gillespie Jr. have recently organized peaceful outlets to demanding justice for Freddie Gray. Johnson and Gillespie are shining examples of what King extols as the facets of nonviolent of direct action. 


All material copyright © Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.; all material copyright renewed © Coretta Scott King and the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.


image from"An electrifying movement of Negro students has shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities across the South. Though confronted in many places by hoodlums, police guns, tear gas, arrests, and jail sentences, the students tenaciously continue to sit down and demand equal service at variety store lunch counters, and extend their protest from city to city. In communities like Montgomery, Alabama, the whole student body rallied behind expelled students and staged a walkout while state government intimidation was unleashed with a display of military force appropriate to a wartime invasion. Nevertheless, the spirit of self-sacrifice and commitment remains firm, and the state governments find themselves dealing with students who have lost the fear of jail and physical injury.

It is no overstatement to characterize these events as historic. Never before in the United States has so large a body of students spread a struggle over so great an area in pursuit of a goal of human dignity and freedom.

The suddenness with which this development burst upon the nation has given rise to the description “spontaneous.” Yet it is not without clearly perceivable causes and precedents. First, we should go back to the ending of World War II. Then, the new will and determination of the Negro were irrevocably generated. Hundreds of thousands of young Negro men were mustered out of the armed forces, and with their honorable discharge papers and GI Bill of Rights grants, they received a promise from a grateful nation that the broader democracy for which they had fought would begin to assume reality. They believed in this promise and acted in the conviction that changes were guaranteed. Some changes did appear—but commensurate neither with the promise nor the need.

Struggles of a local character began to emerge, but the scope and results were limited. Few Americans outside the immediately affected areas even realized a struggle was taking place. One perceptible aspect was the steady, significant increase in voting registration which took place, symbolizing the determination of the Negro, particularly the veteran, to make his rights a reality. The number of registered voters reached a point higher than exists today.

The United States Supreme Court decision of 1954 was viewed by Negroes as the delivery of part of the promise of change. In unequivocal language the Court affirmed that “separate but equal” facilities are inherently unequal, and that to segregate a child on the basis of his race is to deny that child equal protection of the law. This decision brought hope to millions of disinherited Negroes who had formerly dared only to dream of freedom. But the implementation of the decision was not to be realized without a sharp and difficult struggle. Through five years of turmoil some advances were achieved. The victory is far from complete, but the determination by Negroes that it will be won is universal.

What relation have these events to the student sit-downs? It was the young veteran who gave the first surge of power to the postwar civil rights movements. It was the high school, college, and elementary school young people who were in the front line of the school desegregation struggle. Lest it be forgotten, the opening of hundreds of schools to Negroes for the first time in history required that there be young Negroes with the moral and physical courage to face the challenges and, all too frequently, the mortal danger presented by mob resistance.

There were such young Negroes in the tens of thousands, and no program for integration failed for want of students. The simple courage of students and their parents should never be forgotten. In the years
1958 and 1959 two massive Youth Marches to Washington for Integrated Schools involved some forty thousand young people who brought with them nearly five hundred thousand signatures on petitions gathered largely from campuses and youth centers. This mass action infused a new spirit of direct action challenging government to act forthrightly.

Hence for a decade young Negroes have been steeled by both deeds and inspiration to step into responsible action. These are the precedents for the student struggle of today.

Many related, interacting social forces must be understood if we are to understand history as it is being made. The arresting upsurge of Africa and Asia is remote neither in time nor in space to the Negro of the South. Indeed, the determination of Negro Americans to win freedom from all forms of oppression springs from the same deep longing that motivates oppressed peoples all over the world.

However inadequate forms of education and communication may be, the ordinary Negro Jim Smith knows that in primitive jungle villages in India still illiterate peasants are casting a free ballot for their state and federal legislators. In one after another of the new African states black men form the government, write the laws, and administer the affairs of state. But in state after state in the United States the Negro is ruled and governed without a fragment of participation in civic life. The contrast is a burning truth which has molded a deep determination to end this intolerable condition.

Negroes have also experienced sharp frustrations as they struggle for the realization of promises expressed in hollow legislative enactments or empty electoral campaign oratory. Conferences from the lowest levels of officialdom up to the Chief Executive in the White House result in the clarification of problems—but not their solution. Studies by many commissions, unhappily devoid of power, continue to pose problems without any concrete results that could be translated into jobs, education, equality of opportunity, and access to the fruits of an historic period of prosperity. In “the affluent society,” the Negro has remained the poor, the underprivileged, and the lowest class. Court actions are often surrounded by a special type of red tape that has made for long drawn-out processes of litigation and evasive schemes. The Negro has also become aware that token integration was not a start in good faith but a new form of discrimination covered up with certain niceties.

It was inevitable, therefore, that a more direct approach would be sought—one which would contain the promise of some immediate degree of success based upon the concrete act of the Negro. Hence, a period began in which the emphasis shifted from the slow court process to direct action in the form of bus protests, economic boycotts, mass marches to and demonstrations in the nation’s capital and state capitals.

One may wonder why the present movement started with the lunch counters. The answer lies in the fact that here the Negro has suffered indignities and injustices that cannot be justified or explained. Almost every Negro has experienced the tragic inconveniences of lunch counter segregation. He cannot understand why he is welcomed with open arms at most counters in the store, but is denied service at a certain counter because it happens to be selling food and drink. In a real sense the “sit-ins” represent more than a demand for service; they represent a demand for respect.

It is absurd to think of this movement as being initiated by Communists or some other outside group. This movement is an expression of the longing of a new Negro for freedom and human dignity. These students were anchored to lunch counter seats by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.

In this new method of protest a new philosophy provided a special undergirding—the philosophy of nonviolence. It was first modestly and quietly projected in one community, Montgomery, when the threat of violence became real in the bus protest. But it burst from this limited arena, and was embraced by masses of people across the nation with fervor and consistency.

The appeal of nonviolence has many facets:

First—It proclaims the sincere and earnest wish of the Negro thatthough changes must be accomplished, there is no desire to use or tolerate force. Thus, it is consistent with the deeply religious traditions of Negroes.

Second—It denies that vengeance for past oppression motivates the new spirit of determined struggle.

Third—It brings to the point of action a great multitude who need the assurance that a technique exists which is suitable and practical for a minority confronting a majority often vicious and possessed of effective weapons of combat.

Fourth—Many Negroes recognize the necessity of creating discord to alter established community patterns, but they strongly desire that controls be built [in], so that neither they nor their adversaries would find themselves engaged in mutual destruction.

Fifth—Having faith that the white majority is not an undifferentiated whole, Negro leaders have welcomed a moral appeal which can reach the emotions and intellect of significant white groups.

The appeal of the philosophy of nonviolence encompasses these many requirements. The key significance of the student movement lies in the fact that from its inception, everywhere, it has combined direct action [and] nonviolence.

This quality has given it the extraordinary power and discipline which every thinking person observes. It has discredited the adversary, who knows how to deal with force but is bewildered and panicky in the face of the new techniques. Time will reveal that the students are learning lessons not contained in their textbooks. Hundreds have already been expelled, fined, imprisoned, and brutalized, and the numbers continue to grow. But with the punishments, something more is growing. A generation of young people has come out of decades of shadows to face naked state power; it has lost its fears, and experienced the majestic dignity of a direct struggle for its own liberation. These young people have connected up with their own history—the slave revolts, the incomplete revolution of the Civil War, the brotherhood of colonial colored men in Africa and Asia. They are an integral part of the history which is reshaping the world, replacing a dying order with modern democracy. They are doing this in a nation whose own birth spread new principles and shattered a medieval social society then dominating most of the globe.

It is extremely significant that in many places the Negro students have found white allies to join in their actions. It is equally significant that on a mass scale students and adults in the North and elsewhere have organized supporting actions, many of which are still only in their early stages.

The segregationists now face some hard alternatives: They can continue to seek to maintain segregated facilities. In this event they must live with discord or themselves initiate, and be responsible for, violence with all its evil consequences. They may close the facilities as they have done in many places. But this will not end the movement; rather, it will spread to libraries, public parks, schools, and the like, and these too will have to be closed, thus depriving both white and Negro of necessary cultural and recreational institutions. This would be a step backward for the whole of society. Or finally, they can accept the principle of equality. In this case they still have two alternative approaches. They may make
the facilities equally bad for both white and Negro or equally good. Thus finally the simple logic and justice in their own interests should direct them to the only acceptable solution—to accept equality and maintain it on the best level for both races.

The outcome of the present struggle will be some time in unfolding, but the line of its direction is clear. It is a final refutation of the time-honored theory that the Negro prefers segregation. It would be futile to deplore, as many do, the tensions accompanying the social changes. Tension and conflict are not alien nor abnormal to growth but are the natural results of the process of changes. A revolution is occurring in both the social order and the human mind. One hundred eighty-four years ago a bold group of men signed the Declaration of Independence. If their struggle had been lost they had signed their own death warrant. Nevertheless, though explicitly regretting that King George had forced them to this extreme by a long “train of abuses,” they resolutely acted and a great new society was born. The Negro students, their parents, and their allies are acting today in that imperishable tradition."


About the Author

image from www.beacon.orgDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), Nobel Peace Prize laureate and architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement, was among the twentieth century’s most influential figures. One of the greatest orators in US history, King also authored several books, including Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, and Why We Can’t WaitHis speeches, sermons, and writings are inspirational and timeless. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.