I learned about King’s death while camping by Walden Pond, and spent the night thinking about his murder in a jail cell.
I was a freshman at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and had been given an assignment in my philosophy class to write a paper on Henry Thoreau’s influence on Mahatma Gandhi, and of course through him on Martin Luther King. Being 18 at the time, and it being spring, I decided I should write the paper not at school, but at Walden Pond in Massachusetts.
Accordingly, I left school, cut my classes, and hitchhiked up to Concord, Mass. I arrived there in the late afternoon and found my way to Walden Pond, which is a small municipal park. Poking around the edges of the lake, I located the site of Thoreau’s cabin, which was really, at that point, just a slight depression in the ground, the cabin long since having rotted away. I sat down there, where the philosophical author of the concept of civil disobedience had lived briefly, and began to write myself.
As it got dark, I laid out my sleeping bag, slid in to protect myself from the chill, and kept working, writing in pencil by flashlight.
It began to rain.
It was a drizzle at first, but eventually it came down a bit harder, and I began to rue my failure to bring along a tarp of some kind. I was getting soaked. Still, I figured Thoreau had suffered in his time, refusing to pay a war tax to support the government’s war of aggression against Mexico and ending up in the pokey, so what was a little cold and wet?
Then a policeman came up, attracted by my light.
“What are you doing here?” he asked me, his voice more puzzled than gruff. Clearly he was amazed at how wet and miserable I looked.
“I’m working on a paper on Thoreau’s influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” I said, realizing how ridiculous that must sound.
“Yeah, well King’s dead,” he told me. “He was just shot in Memphis.”
I was stunned. It took all my resilience away and I started to shiver.
“Look,” the officer said kindly. “It’s cold, and it’s going to be raining all night. You can’t stay here in the park after dark. Technically, you’re trespassing, so if you want, I can take you in and you can sleep in the jail. But I’ll have to lock you up.”
It sounded like a good deal to me. A warm bed, and maybe a cup of coffee.
So he drove me in to the Concord jail. I don’t know whether he violated protocol, but I was not cuffed for the ride in the back of his patrol car.
In the jailhouse at the police station, I was taken to a clean cell and locked behind bars. To my dismay, there was no bed. Just a nicely varnished wooden plank attached to the wall. “Do you want a sandwich?” the officer asked. “We’ve got peanut butter.”
I said thank you, and was given a white bread and peanut butter sandwich, and a cup of black coffee.
There was no radio, so I couldn’t hear the news, but I sat on the sleeping plank and pondered the enormity of what had just happened.
The Vietnam War had been turning into a catastrophe. The Tet uprising had occurred only weeks earlier. American casualties were soaring. A ear earlier King had started condemning the war, and now he was dead. Clearly, this had to be, on some level, a response to his having expanded his political agenda.
I was at the time a draft resister, having declined to seek a student deferment when I enrolled at the university. I had already been in jail once, under less congenial circumstances as one of several hundred arrested at the Pentagon in the October ’67 Mobilization March on the Pentagon. I had already sent the ashes of my Selective Service Registration Card to my draft board, telling them that I would not carry it, and would not allow myself to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.
I pulled out my damp manuscript and puzzled over what to write.
Thoreau had said that people needed to take a stand when their government was in the wrong, and he had said that the appropriate response was non-violent civil disobedience. Gandhi had taken that idea to heart, and had built an unstoppable anti-colonial revolution around its premise, which had resulted in an independent India. In the end he was killed by the violence and religious hatreds that the British colonial power had deliberately stirred up in response to Gandhi’s successful campaign.
Martin Luther King had taken the thoughts of Thoreau and the thoughts and practice of Gandhi and brought them to the Civil Rights struggle in America, and then to the anti-war movement. Now he had been murdered.
It raised questions in my mind at the time about the efficacy of civil disobedience.
Still, all in all, I came to the conclusion that night, and still believe today, that except in the direst of circumstances, where people’s lives or a nation’s survival are at imminent risk, non-violent protest is the only way to effect successful change. I had always said — and had told my draft board at my conscientious objector hearing (they rejected my appeal) — I couldn’t be a pacifist, because had I been born Vietnamese, I would surely have taken up arms to resist the French and American forces trying to rule my country. But for most things-bringing equal rights to all Americans, ending America’s endless imperialist military adventures around the world, etc., battling against corporate power and the destruction of the planet’s ecosystem — violence clearly would not work.
We’re certainly seeing the absurdity of the idea of change through violence in Iraq, where the US at least claimed and continues to claim to be trying to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq by violently destroying the fabric of the country, killing upwards of a million innocent people, and driving a sixth of the population into exile. The long history of violent revolutions, with even the most progressive of intentions, nearly all of which seem to devolve into totalitarianism, offers further evidence of the poisonous effects of violence. Here at home, we saw the absurdity of violent efforts by small military groups like the Weather Underground to end the war in Vietnam, too.
Martin Luther King was right. So were Gandhi and Thoreau before him. Violence is not the answer.
It is, however, the response of the ruling elite to those, like Dr. King, who make that case and try to organize popular movements for change.
The challenge is to make sure that such vicious attacks do not intimidate or deter us from continuing to struggle-peacefully and with civil disobedience as necessary–for a more just and peaceful world.
That is the sad, yet strangely empowering truth I learned on April 4, 1968 in the Concord jail, and that I have to confront anew as each birthday rolls around.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His n book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s newest book is “The Case for Impeachment“, co-authored by Barbara Olshansky.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org