“Nonviolence or nonexistence: That is where we are today.”

By Eric K. Ward

Thank you to @BerniceKing for inspiring the internet with this image tweet, a riff on a 1969 Times Square billboard in John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s international agit-prop peace campaign.

“America’s Chief Moral Dilemma” remains as it was when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech with this title to a large multiracial crowd in Berkeley. It was one of several addresses in the last year of his life in which he warned of “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

With one in three Americans now saying violence against the government can be justified and frequent reference to America’s “next civil war,” it’s Dr. King’s least-known message on militarism that we ignore at our peril.

“The great problem and the great challenge facing mankind today is to get rid of war,” King told a private gathering of Black and white civic leaders in Atlanta on May 10, 1967. “We have left ourselves as a nation morally and politically isolated in the world.”

It would be a mistake to regard King’s comments as limited to the morass of the Vietnam War of that time. His insights into the consequences of militarism speak to the normalization of political violence that has only increased since his death, reflected in a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll that found 40 percent of white Americans saying violence against the government can be justified.

King warned us of the dangers inherent in a culture of militarism. Of the resources diverted, he said: “when a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, social programs inevitably suffer.” Today Congress has increased the Defense budget $25 billion over what was proposed by President Biden, himself no dove, when we still lack adequate personal protective equipment against the coronavirus and our veterans lead the ranks of the unhoused and those felled by suicide and addiction.

As a patriot who enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17 years of age, I understand the reality of a nation having to defend itself. The problem is the moral distortion that comes with misplaced funding priorities, with mistaking what makes a nation strong.

The second dimension of the evil of militarism that Dr. King named is its ability to distract. “We have greatly strengthened the forces of reaction in America,” he warned, “and excited violence and hatred among our own people. We have diverted attention from civil rights.”

In his very last speech, the night before he was assassinated, he bemoaned such violence not just as a moral failing, but as a strategic error. King was in Memphis to rally support for African American sanitation workers who were on strike. As tensions increased in the days leading to his final night, violence erupted. Windows were broken, stores looted. A 16-year-old, shot and killed by police.

“The issue is injustice,” King told an assembly of sanitation workers a few days later — but “the press dealt only with the window-breaking. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them… They didn’t get around to that.”

“That’s always the problem with a little violence,” King said.

As it was then, so it is today. The great international, multiracial uprising following the killing of George Floyd was unprecedented in its size. Despite the false narrative pushed by Donald Trump that sought to equate the nonviolent Movement for Black Lives with “Antifa,” those mid-2020 mass mobilizations were remarkably peaceful. For a moment there, support for racial equity rose to levels only dreamed of by Dr. King.

And then the window breaking increased and came to dominate the news, just as it did in Memphis in 1968.

While the majority of domestic political violence is committed by those on the far-right, the use of weaponry and willingness to commit property and interpersonal personal violence now spans the ideological spectrum.

Why are we so willing to dehumanize each other? Dr. King identified this as the deepest consequence of the evil of militarism: “People become insensitive to pain and agony in their own midst.”

Since Dr. King’s assassination, we have watched the militarization of our city’s police forces and our southern border, and the dehumanization of the way we treat immigrants and refugees. Politics has become a bloodsport, with members of Congress tweeting assassination memes. Mass shooters from Christchurch to El Paso to Denver have cited the words of the last president (the late-2021 Denver shooter promoted Trump’s dictate, “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.”) The anniversaries of horrific acts of violence now pass with little notice. It has become banal. All of this violence, justified by the rhetoric of war.

It’s easy to critique our political opponents for their bloodthirst. It’s harder to see the degree to which a culture of violence and dominance and dehumanization affects our own social movements.

The evidence is clear from around the world. Armed revolutions may bring about regime change, but they fail to deliver stability. Harvard scholar Erica Chenoweth reviewed 323 mass actions over the 20th century that resulted in the overthrow of a government or territorial liberation and found that non-violent civil resistance is far more effective in producing change.

Before acknowledging that longevity was not to be his and testifying to what he had seen from the mountain top, Dr. King used his last public words to warn us about the cost of violence:

“It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Western States Center


Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.