ST PETER — In a violent world, the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. is often denounced as a thing of the past, as the only means available to an oppressed and dispossessed people grappling for equality.
This has been one of the greatest myths after the civil rights era died down, said Taylor Branch, called the pre-eminent biographer of Martin Luther King Jr.
We have forgotten the unequivocal power nonviolence has had in causing change worldwide, he said. And where the civil rights movement is concerned, we often forget the “astonishing courage” it took for unarmed, powerless people to confront their oppressors.
“I’m here to try to convince you that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not just a quaint and inspirational moment from our past,” Branch said Monday morning at Gustavus Adolphus College during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Lecture. “Nonviolence lifted the whole country toward the true meaning of our professed values.”
That’s why it troubles Branch so much that so many people view King as a symbol, only remembering the CliffsNotes to the movement. In the face of “searing dishonor,” black people put all of their hope and fear on the line, one act of civil disobedience at a time. And turning such events into mythology and symbolism blinds us to reality, he said.
Among the myths that have developed since the civil rights era is that racial injustice is largely conquered, he said. And existing simultaneously is the idea that race is intractable. People look at racial problems, such as the achievement gap in schools and the high percentage of black males in prisons, and they say the problem is too big, he said. Whichever myth one ascribes to, the result is the same: “It’s a waste of time either way,” he said. “We avoid them, and we avoid looking under the surface at reality.”