“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Those words, rather famously, come from Martin Luther King, Jr., first spoken in a sermon he gave in 1957, and then printed in his 1963 book Strength to Love.
The sentiment is classic King. It is a message that implores his audience to respond to hatred, bigotry and violence with peace, non-violence, and love. King believed, rightly in my mind, that responding to hatred with hatred, intolerance with intolerance, and violence with violence, irreparably corrupted your cause, undercut your ability to resist, and undermined your ability to truly, and permanently, change hearts and minds.
King also argued for unity and brotherhood among all races. He wanted to put an end to the bitter violence and hatred he had both witnessed, and experienced himself first hand.
His was a message of togetherness and inclusion. In his famous I Have a Dream speech, he expressed one of his greatest wishes to live in a world where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
It is aspirational. It is hopeful. It inspires the best instincts in the human heart.
Today, of course, this message seems to most Americans to be not only the ideal society, but also common sense. I don’t know a single person — and I mean that sincerely — that doesn’t agree with that sentiment.
Yet, it was not the only perspective within the civil rights movement at the time, nor was King the only figure of prominence. Malcolm X, for instance, rejected the approach taken by King, and believed that integration was an abomination.
“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black,” Malcolm said in his 1963 message to the grassroots, “which means it’s too strong. What you do? You integrate it with cream; you make it weak. If you pour too much cream in, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak.”
He continued, criticizing the march on Washington, and King’s approach. “It used to wake you up, now it’ll put you to sleep. This is what they did with the march on Washington. They joined it. They didn’t integrate it; they infiltrated it. They joined it, became a part of it, took it over. And as they took it over, it lost its militancy. They ceased to be angry. They ceased to be hot. They ceased to be uncompromising.”
Malcolm X was a confrontational, militant activist who believed that African Americans should be more concerned with helping each other, and that by integrating with whites, they were polluting the community and diluting their own power. White oppression was not something to overcome by inspiring a sense of oneness, community and the universal brotherhood and sisterhood, but instead by unity in the black community, and militant, even violent opposition.
The competing visions of the world of King and Malcolm often broke out into criticisms of one another, with King telling Playboy in 1965, “I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem.” Malcolm, for his part, felt that white people only turned to King as an inoffensive alternative because they were scared of him and his followers.
So which side of the fence do you fall on? What is the answer to hate, intolerance, and violence? Is it hate, intolerance, and violence? Is that justified? Does it work? Do you corrupt yourself, and make yourself very thing you despise, if you respond in kind?
America is asking itself that question today.
Charlottesville brought the issue of white supremacy, and the proper response to it, to the front of all of our minds. There, America was introduced to a large group of very peaceful protesters who rejected hate and intolerance, as well as the hate-filled, violent group, Antifa, who actively look to battle it.
The following weekend, a small rally in Boston was swallowed by a gigantic protest that included, once again, well meaning, peaceful protesters, and Antifa agitators itching for a violent confrontation that never came.
From my perspective, one approach has been historically proven to change the world, and the other has shown that it perpetuates acrimony, hatred and violence.