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Is Violence Ever Justified to Initiate Change? Perspectives from Two African American Leaders

March 17, 2011

Updated February 15, 2012

Some months back, I watched Spike Lee’s superb 1989 movie Do the Right Thing. A controversial film when it was released because of fears of protests and even violence (which never materialized), it remains highly relevant to not just America’s racial issues (which now includes Muslims) but more broadly the world.

It was at the end of the film when I read two quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X that I thought about what was initially called “revolutionary contagion” in North Africa and the Middle East. This later morphed into the now “Arab Spring.” Unfortunately, these self-empowered uprisings by citizens of all ages has been characterized by a great deal of violence as oppressive governments use various means to thwart demonstrators. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was the most prominent example of a tyrant who used whatever means to maintain his grip on power.

Qaddafi eventually met his maker; now the world’s attention is on the incredible, and growing, violence in Syria, whose dictator Bashar al-Assad holds his citizens in such abject contempt that he’s relishing slaugtering not just rebels but women, children and the elderly.

In 2011, the governments of Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly with minimal bloodshed. However, there’s a long list of other countries, Syria being a special case, where citizen uprisings are at various stages: Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Algeria, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.

Just look back at history for some lessons. In 1848, King Louise-Philippe threatened to end a peaceful protest in Paris, which produced mobs of people taking to the streets to show their anger. The protesters befriended the national guard, and although there were some deaths and injuries the King quickly abdicated his throne. The result? A new republic.

On the heels of the protests in France came those in Munich. A similar result ensued, with elections being held and a new cabinet created. In the space of a month, protests erupted around Europe, including Milan and Venice where the occupying Austrian army was forced to withdraw. However, within a year this revolutionary tide reversed as the newly created governments pushed too hard on change. In France, for example, the rapid move to socialism backfired, resulting in a reversal of the changes that were being introduced.

Back to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, two leaders who believed in change and ending the oppression of African Americans. However, their approaches to initiating change differed. Read the following quotations from these two leaders and reflect on where you would situate yourself. Which approach do you believe is the most effective to free oppressed people?

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical 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 everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a 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.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.
– Malcolm X

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