Would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have supported violence in defense of Ukrainians?

Today we celebrate the memory of one of the most impactful Americans who ever lived: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..  I believe his I Have a Dream speech is the most inspiring I’ve ever heard.  You’ve probably seen it before but take a few minutes to watch it again here (transcript is here).  Its culmination is unforgettable: 

[W]hen we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!

While many have heard or read the entire (or portions of) I Have a Dream, other writings and interviews of Dr. King are less well known or referenced.

In today’s post, I draw on articles written about the famed theologian and activist, as well as his own comments in prior essays, to hypothesize what Dr. King might have thought about the use of force in self-defense in Ukraine.

Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence

Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence is legendary.  As the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University put it:

As a theologian, Martin Luther King reflected often on his understanding of nonviolence.  He described his own “pilgrimage to nonviolence” in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, and in subsequent books and articles.  “True pacifism,” or “nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, Stride, 80).  Both “morally and practically” committed to nonviolence, King believed that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

Moreover, King opposed militarism in general, and the Vietnam war in specific – even when it wasn’t popular to do so.  In a 2018 conversation published in the Boston Review, Dr. Cornell West (a leading Black intellectual who is described as an “outspoken voice in left-wing politics in the United States”) said this:

Militarism was [King’s] critique of the American empire. For him, a Vietnamese baby has the same value as an American baby. That’s when they said, “You ain’t nothing but an extension of Radio Hanoi. You are a communist.” And then what happened? Black preachers turned away from him, didn’t allow him to speak at the pulpits anymore.  The New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, exemplary liberal—these days, neoliberal—institutions . . . don’t want to tell the truth. They act like they are so progressive—but they pushed Martin aside. 72 percent of Americans disapproved of Martin when he was shot in Memphis and 50 percent of black Americans disapproved of Martin when he was shot. We should never forget that. (Emphasis added).

Was Dr. King an absolute pacifist?

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Dr. King was an absolute pacifist.  Dr. Dara T. Mathis, writing in The Atlantic in 2018, said that King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance never meant private abandonment of self-defense or even complete conversion to pacifism.”

As I said in a prior post:

Stanford University researchers suggest that King’s views did not extend to absolute pacifism “on the grounds that it ignores the essentially sinful side of human nature and the need for coercion to avoid anarchy.”  Historian David Chappell wrote in the Washington Post [in 2018] that:

King rebelled against the pacifist attitudes that so many liberal Christians in his day embraced.  To King, conventional pacifism required too much faith in human goodness. King believed that pacifists’ moral purity also imbued their cause with a self-righteousness that alienated the ordinary masses that he identified with.  Pacifists refused to acknowledge the moral dilemmas that ordinary people faced: Force was often necessary, for example, to free slaves, defend the defenseless or halt the expansion of mass-murdering regimes.

King himself was very much a man of his times, and said this in 1960 in the midst of the Cold War:

“I felt that while war could never be a positive or absolute good, it could serve as a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, I felt, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But more and more I have come to the conclusion that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibility of war ever serving again as a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

So it seems that King’s view on nonviolence [in international relations] was premised on the notion that war inevitably would result in a nuclear exchange that “nobody can win” – not on the use of force that could, indeed, stop the killing of innocents without the risk of annihilation of the human race.

King did address conflicts short of nuclear war. In his famous 1967 speech declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War, he offered specific objections based on particular facts, not so much on some generalized view that all of war of any kind was unacceptable. Indeed, part of what he relied upon later proved to be inaccurate (for details about those inaccuracies, see the post here).

Can someone as committed to nonviolence as Dr. King still support the use of force in defense of Ukraine?

I think so.

For example, Pope Francis has a powerful pacifistic streak in his thinking: after touring the Normandy D-Day site, he told reporters:

I don’t want to speak ill of anyone, but it touched my heart: when the commemoration of the Normandy landings took place. The heads of so many governments were there to commemorate that. It was the beginning of the fall of Nazism, it’s true. But how many boys were left on the beaches in Normandy? They say thirty thousand… Who thinks of those boys? War sows all of this. That is why you, who are journalists, please be pacifists, speak out against wars, fight against war. I ask you as a brother. (Emphasis added).

At the same time, however, the Pope seems to realize there are times when the use of force in self-defense in necessary.  Specifically, at a press conference late last year, “a reporter asked if it was morally right for countries to send weapons to Ukraine.”  According to Reuters, the Pope said:

“This is a political decision which it can be moral, morally acceptable, if it is done under conditions of morality,” Francis said.

He expounded on the Roman Catholic Church’s “Just War” principles, which allow for the proportional use of deadly weapons for self defence against an aggressor nation. (Emphasis added).

Pope Francis went a step further by not only embracing the righteousness of self-defense, but also by giving a rather surprising description of those who do not:

“Self defence is not only licit but also an expression of love for the homeland. Someone who does not defend oneself, who does not defend something, does not love it. Those who defend (something) loves it.” (Emphasis added)

As I’ve said previously, in my opinion one can be a very strong advocate of nonviolence yet still not be a pacifist.  I would suggest that most military people fall into that category (discussed in a May 2019 post, Reflections on Pacifism).  

In his 1959 article The Social Organization of Nonviolence Dr. King enunciated three views of violence:

One is the approach of pure nonviolence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage.  The second is violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal.  The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence.  The third is the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously. (Emphasis added).

What he rejected was not self-defense, but the third form which at the time some were advocating as a means of obtaining civil rights domestically.  As the Stanford Institute points out, Dr. King rejected the suggestion that “[B]lack people take up arms [saying] There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men”

Consider as well these additional quotes from Dr. King:

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But…the good Samaritan reversed the question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”


We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.


Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

Concluding Thoughts

As a book lover, I thought so much of one of Dr. King’s quotes that years ago I had it printed on bookmarks that I distributed to friends and colleagues.  Here’s what that quote of his said:  “And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because it’s right.” 

Of course, we can never really know what Dr. King would have thought about the situation in Ukraine, but I think he would have, like the Pope, understood that the situation requires, tragically, the use of force as a last resort.  No doubt he would have vigorously sought a just peace, but I believe he would have stood with Ukrainians and supported them – even if that called for violent means in self-defense.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!


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