MLK Versus BLM in Changing Hearts and Minds | Opinion

Martin Luther King, Jr. proved the great practical value of nonviolent protest. One can't change people's hearts and minds through intimidation and violence. Unfortunately, the Black Lives Matter movement and its progressive supporters seem to have forgotten Dr. King's lessons.

Modern social science studies make it clear that intimidation and violence generally aren't effective in changing a person's internalized norms about racial equality, or other things, but in fact commonly have the opposite effect. The findings are common sense. By intimidation, such as public shaming, one might get a person to mouth the answer one wants, but not necessarily get the person to internalize the position as his/her own. Indeed, the intimidation may create a resentment that makes true conversion less likely. Intimidation begets resistance.

Dr. King never read today's social science studies, but he had a natural genius about people. His appreciation of human dynamics suggested that long-term social change was only possible if one could "transform your enemies." Forcing them to act better through intimidation or violence was a short-term solution. He predicted that if protesters "succumbed to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos."

The success of Dr. King's approach has proven itself. In the space of a generation, two centuries of fixed racial inequality was transformed. From a country that denied Blacks the right to vote to a country that elected a Black president. From a country that maintained racial segregation in schools to a country where entire bureaucracies exist to promote racial diversity in colleges. The transformation to a color-blind society is thus far incomplete, but the effectiveness of Dr. King's approach seems difficult to deny.

Black Lives Matter and its progressive supporters would seem to disagree. The president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, Hawk Newsome, argued that his organization and others like it are justified in using destruction to call attention to their grievances. "The riot is the language of the unheard." He explains, "I think that it is a tool of white supremacy to say if you want freedom, then you get it by protesting peacefully." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a white supremacist? Really?

The group and its allies have carried through on their belief in violence and intimidation. Just this past weekend, Seattle protesters hurled rocks and explosives at police. Portland protesters wearing gas masks and carrying shields threw rocks and fireworks at a courthouse and blinded three federal officers with lasers, perhaps permanently. Protesters in Austin attacked a car, whose occupant then shot and killed a protester confronting him with an AK-47-like assault rifle. In Aurora, Colorado, protesters broke windows at the courthouse and started a fire. And so on.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama
Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images

Despite the public confessions of BLM leadership that they support intimidation and violence, some BLM supporters want to claim that the ongoing damage and destruction is produced by a few bad apples and that most of the demonstrators have peaceful intentions. This is exactly the argument they reject when police departments suggest it is a small number of unrepresentative bad apple officers who are to blame. If the argument doesn't work for police, how can it work for protesters who are part of the crowd hurling rocks—or for organizers who arrange protests while knowing they frequently end in violence?

Indeed, there is little indication that progressives are interested in stifling the intimidation and violence. On the contrary, a number of Democratic mayors in cities with ongoing violence have arranged for the confrontations to continue by giving the protests a special exemption from the prohibitions against public gatherings that spread coronavirus.

If the goal of the violence and intimidation is simply to provide emotional venting, then its cost to innocent citizens is indefensible and immoral. If the goal is to gain political advantage by energizing party voters for the upcoming election, then it is tragically shortsighted and ignoble. There is a difference between gaining political power and making society better. If achieving the first requires intimidating half the population, it makes achieving the second impossible.

The current program of aggression in the streets, of forcing progressive ideological dogma on campus and of intimidating citizens into ideological compliance will bring resentment and resistance and is a losing strategy for making a better society. The resentment created will not bring progressives' desired shift in internalized norms, but will only undermine any such transformation, as Dr. King intuitively understood and preached many years ago.

Paul H. Robinson is the Colin S. Diver professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers, Crimes That Changed Our World and Shadow Vigilantes.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.