Martin Luther King from a Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding Perspective

Newsletter #196— January 15, 2024

by Guy Burgess

As we continue to contemplate our collective inability to defuse the hyper-polarization spiral that is undermining the future of the United States and so many other democracies, we have found ourselves reflecting on what Martin Luther King (and the movement he helped create) was able to accomplish. We see many ways in which his ideas could be applied now to help us better deal with our current difficulties. In this post, I thought I would share three videos that I used for years to explain to students in my Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies Course why, from a conflict and peacebuilding perspective, I thought Martin Luther King's contributions were so extraordinarily important.

The first video, Eyes on the Prize, (4:05 minutes) consists of a series of video clips accompanied by Mavis Staples' rendition of the classic civil rights ballad of the same name. This black and white video consists of scenes from the civil rights protests leading up to the August 1963 March on Washington — scenes that do an unforgettable job of highlighting the awful reality of the US in the segregation era and the brutality through with which civil rights protests were commonly put down.


Before showing the film to students who grew up in the smart phone era, I remind them that these videos were shot at a time when movie cameras were scarce, expensive, bulky, and produced poor quality images. I also emphasize the difficulties and dangers associated with documenting these events, and explain that this is the reason why they see so few videos from this era.

I also call to call attention to the fact that this was an era of grotesque and brutal racism — racism that enjoyed broad support across US society. It was de jure segregation, backed up by the "rule of law" and the power of the police. Racism wasn't today's implicit biases and micro-aggressions. It was explicitly discriminatory and overtly aggressive and violent.

I also asked students to notice the dignity with which King's radical, nonviolent protesters conducted themselves — often dressing in suit and tie and refusing to fight back, even when being brutally beaten. Despite the instances of horrific violence that the video documents, the overall tone of the video, which is set by the "Eyes on the Prize" soundtrack, is positive — culminating in the extraordinary success of August 1963 March on Washington (a march that I think still stands as one of the most successful protest marches of all time.)

The second video taken of the 1963 March on Washington (5:47 minutes) is the Universal Newsreels report on that march (formally called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom).  I introduce this by explaining to students that, at this early stage of the television era, many people got their news from the "newsreels" that were shown in theaters before the feature-length movie that audiences came to see. Unlike today's news reports, which are carefully tailored to appeal to relatively small and politically homogeneous audiences, news reports in this era were intended for the whole society and, therefore, had to be seen as reasonable and credible across the whole of the US population. And, as I mentioned above, this was the time when the United States was just starting to question the hypocrisy of its deep-rooted racist beliefs and hostility to civil rights protests was still widespread.


What I find so striking about this video is the positive tenor of its report. The ability of March organizers to earn that kind of coverage in a country that was still quite hostile to its goals is an enormous accomplishment. 

Another thing that I asked students to note was that, unlike today's overtly contentious, confrontational, and usually not very productive marches, participants in the 1963 March were respectfully dressed (often wearing what used to be called "Sunday finest" attire). And, they conducted themselves in respectful and non-threatening ways that reflected the seriousness with which they took the event. Police had little to do except deal with counter protesters. This calm environment contributed to the widespread willingness of people to listen and, actually, be persuaded by the speeches being given — especially Dr. King's.

The third video (17:28 minutes) is the full recording of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Before playing the speech in its entirety, I tried to highlight for my students the principal reasons why I think that this speech was so effective, and why it was able to lay the groundwork for such sweeping changes in US society — changes that included the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

Watch King's "I Have a Dream" Speech.


 In addition to outlawing discrimination on the basis of race and sex, and ensuring equal access to the ballot box, these acts also eliminated the national-origins quota which opened the United States up to immigration to people from all over the world. This is largely responsible for highly diverse population that our country now enjoys. The march also played a big role in making possible the enormous resource commitments of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and Great Society programs. 

King's efforts did, of course, not "solve" the problem of racism. In the turbulent decades that followed his 1963 speech and his 1968 assassination, progress towards racial equity has run into a depressingly long series of roadblocks. While there is a critical need to look carefully at the nature of these roadblocks and possible remedies, that is not our purpose here. Our goal is to highlight the things that made King's march, and his speech so phenomenally effective. We also want to argue that the principles around which his speech and his broader appeal were structured could be profitably applied to many ongoing efforts to find ways of more constructively addressing the many legitimate grievances that now permeate our society. 

The first thing that I explained to my students about his speech was that he did not start by attacking the United States as a deeply racist society. Instead, he embraced the "magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence" and the "promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." He then went on to simply demand that America live up to the promise embedded in those ideals. 

Next, he made it clear that the demands that he was making could not be put off until another day. He emphasized "the fierce urgency of now" and the fact that this is not the "time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." He also issued a threat – stating that there will be "neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro* is granted his citizenship rights." 

Having opened in this relatively forceful way, he goes on to make a number of points designed to limit the White backlash and opposition.  Most important of these was his firm promise not to drink "from the cup of bitterness and hatred" and a promise that they would conduct their "struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline" and not allow "protest to degenerate into physical violence."

Instead of open-ended hostility and hatred toward whites, he simply stated that the Negro will not be satisfied until a number of quite reasonable steps were taken to address the most important (and most indefensible injustices) including, for example, the desire to be free of the "unspeakable horrors of police brutality," to "gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities," to protect our children from being "stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only," and the desire to have the right to vote and something "for which to vote."

Finally, he ended with the "I have a dream" section of the speech where he explains that his is "a dream deeply rooted in the American dream"... "a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed." He goes on to imagine a nation in which people "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  

Finally, he ends with a unifying appeal for speeding 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."

As I argued at the onset, I believe that King's approach offers a vastly more promising strategy for those (on both the left and the right) who believe that they are not being treated fairly by the democratic societies in which they live. His advice can be summarized as follows.

Start by focusing on shared positive values rather than the negative aspects of the group that you are challenging. Focus on the things that you have in common. Then, frame your grievances as appeals to live by those shared values. In liberal democracies, this is relatively easy, since these societies are all founded on egalitarian ideals that provide a basis for such appeals. In other words, try to gently, but firmly, highlight the dominant group's hypocrisy. 

Specify your demands in ways that make it clear that there are reasonable things that could be done to resolve the issue that you are raising. Frame your demands in ways that make it clear that all you are doing is asking others to treat you in the same way that you are willing to treat them. (For example, favor ending discrimination against all, rather than promoting reverse discrimination which just angers and creates enemies among those will now discriminated against.) This contrasts sharply with the now-fashionable framing of racial issues which envisions permanent, unavoidable, and continuing conflict between racial and other identity groups. (In his book, The Identity Trap, Yascha Mounk carefully documents the origins and extent of this line of thinking.)

Also important is a commitment to nonviolence and a promise to, despite differences, commit to democratic processes that protect everyone's rights. Doing otherwise invites backlash, escalation, and hyper-polarization.  Finally, focus attention on a positive vision for the future in which everyone's interests are protected and everyone would like to live.


* Current readers might be jarred by the use of the term "negro."  We use it here to properly quote King--that was the term that was commonly used and accepted for Blacks at the time.

Photo Credit: Martin Luther King – Source:; By David Erickson; Permission: CC BY 2.0 DEED; Date Required January 15, 2024


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