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When Martin Luther King Gave Up His Guns

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.)

Few are aware that Martin Luther King, Jr. once applied for a permit to carry a concealed handgun.

In his 2011 book Gunfight, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler notes that, after King’s house was bombed in 1956, the clergyman applied in Alabama for a concealed carry permit. Local police, loathe to grant such permits to African-Americans, deemed him “unsuitable” and denied his application.

The lesson from this incident is not, as some NRA members have tried to suggest in recent years, that King should be remembered as a gun-toting Republican. (Among many other problems, this portrayal neglects to acknowledge how Republicans used conservative anger about Civil Rights advances to win over the Dixiecrat South to their side of the aisle). Rather, the fact that King would request license to wear a gun in 1956, just as he was being catapulted onto the national stage, illustrates the profundity of the transformation that he underwent over the course of his public career.

While this transformation involved a conversion to moral nonviolence and personal pacifism, that is not the whole story. King’s evolution also involved a hesitant but ultimately forceful embrace of direct action — broad-scale, confrontational and unarmed. That stance had lasting consequences in the struggle for freedom in America.

The 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the campaign that first established King’s national reputation, was not planned in advance as a Gandhian-style campaign of nonviolent resistance. At the time, King would not have had a clear sense of the strategic principles behind such a campaign. Rather, the bus boycott came together quickly in the wake of Rosa Park’s arrest in late 1955, taking inspiration from a similar action in Baton Rouge in 1953.

King, a newcomer to Montgomery, was unexpectedly thrust into the leadership of the movement, chosen in part because he was not identified with any of the established factions among the city’s prominent blacks. Soon he was receiving phone calls on which unidentified voices warned, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” After such threats resulted in the bombing of King’s home in February 1956, armed watchmen guarded against further assassination attempts.

This response reflected King’s still-tentative embrace of the theory and practice of nonviolence. In his talks before mass meetings, King preached the Christian injunction to “love thy enemy.” Having read Thoreau in college, he described the bus boycott as an “act of massive noncooperation” and regularly called for “passive resistance.” But King did not use the term “nonviolence,” and he admitted that he knew little about Gandhi or the Indian independence leader’s campaigns. As King biographer Taylor Branch notes, out-of-state visitors who were knowledgeable about the principles of unarmed direct action — such as Rev. Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Bayard Rustin of the War Resisters League — reported that King and other Montgomery activists were “at once gifted and unsophisticated in nonviolence.”

Both Rustin and Smiley took notice of the firearms around the King household and argued for their removal. In a famous incident described by historian David Garrow, Rustin was visiting King’s parsonage with reporter Bill Worthy when the journalist almost sat on a pistol. He and King stayed up late that night arguing about whether armed self-defense in the home could end up damaging the movement. It was not long before King had come around to the position advocated by groups like the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1959, at the invitation of the Gandhi National Memorial Fund, King made a pilgrimage to India to study the principles of satyagraha, and he was moved by the experience. Ultimately, he never embraced the complete pacifism. Later, in the Black Power years, King made a distinction between people using guns to defend themselves in the home and the question of “whether it was tactically wise to use a gun while participating in an organized protest.” But, for himself, King claimed nonviolence as a “way of life,” and he maintained his resolve under conditions that would make others falter.

In September 1962, when King was addressing a convention, a 200-pound white man, the 24-year-old American Nazi Party member Roy James, jumped onto the stage and struck the clergyman in the face. King responded with a level of courage that made a lifelong impression on many of those in the audience. One of them, the storied educator and activist Septima Clark, described how King dropped his hands “like a newborn baby” and spoke calmly to his attacker. King made no effort to protect himself even as he was knocked backwards by further blows, and later even insisted that he would not press charges.

Believers in pacifism often contend that such principled nonviolence represents the high point in a person’s moral evolution. They argue that those who merely use unarmed protest tactically — not because they accept it as an ethical imperative, but because they have decided it is the most effective way to propel a given campaign for social change — practice a lesser form of nonviolence. King, like Gandhi, argued that “nonviolence in the truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient in the moment,” but rather that it is something “men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim.” But, arguably, moral nonviolence without strategic vision rings hollow. And, in holding up King as an icon of individual pacifism, we fail to see his true genius.

It is possible for someone to commit to nonviolence as a point of personal principle without ever participating in the kind of action that would make their convictions a matter of public consequence. But it is only when the tenets of unarmed direct action are strategically employed, made into effective weapons of political persuasion through campaigns of widespread disruption and collective sacrifice, that nonviolence gains its fullest power.

Martin Luther King did embrace strategic nonviolence in its most robust and radical form — and this produced the historic confrontations at Birmingham and Selma. But it is important to remember that these came years after his initial baptism into political life in Montgomery, and that they might easily not have happened at all.

Following the successful bus boycott, King sought out ways to spread the Montgomery model throughout the South. In early 1957, King met James Lawson, a savvy student of unarmed resistance who had spent several years in India. As Branch relates, King pleaded with the young graduate student to quit his studies: “We need you now,” King said. “We don’t have any Negro leadership in the South that understands nonviolence.”

Despite this recognition, the idea of waging broadly participatory campaigns of direct action fell far outside of King’s frame of reference, and in many ways he remained a reluctant convert to mass action. Founded in 1957, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was conceived as a coalition of ministers. It thought of itself, in the words of one historian, as the “political arm of the black church.” However, as Barbara Ransby writes, “the majority of black ministers in the 1950s still opted for a safer, less confrontational political path” and even King and his allies didn’t stray far from the “respectable American mainstream.” Noting this, the militant Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham warned that if the organization did not become more aggressive, its leaders would “be hard put in the not too distant future to justify our existence.”

The next major breakthroughs in civil rights activism would come not from the SCLC’s hesitant ministers, but through the student lunch counter sit-ins that swept through the South starting in spring of 1960, and then through the 1961 Freedom Rides. In each case, when young activists implored King to join them, the elder clergyman — himself just in his early 30s — held back.

When King’s SCLC did get directly involved in a major campaign of strategic nonviolence, the organization was drawn into an effort that was already underway — one in Albany, GA, starting in late 1961. Even then, the SCLC did not fully commit until after King and close colleague Ralph Abernathy were swept up in an unplanned arrest. Unfortunately, the effort in Albany was beset by rivalries between different civil rights groups, and it ended in failure. As Garrow notes, the New York Times ended up praising “the remarkable restraint of Albany’s segregationists and the deft handling by the police of racial protests,” while another national publication remarked that “not a single racial barrier fell.”

Nevertheless, the sense of potential he experienced in Albany, combined with the inspiration of the Freedom Rides and student sit-ins, convinced King that the time had come for a campaign of mass action that, in the words of Andrew Young, could be “anticipated, planned and coordinated from beginning to end” using the principles of nonviolent conflict. King had chosen his time and place: Birmingham, 1963.

King’s political genius was in putting the institutional weight of a major national civil rights organization behind an ambitious, escalating deployment of civil resistance tactics. In the case of Birmingham, this meant taking previously tried approaches — the economic pressure leveled against merchants during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the dramatic sit-ins of Nashville, the fill-the-jails arrest strategy of Albany — and combining them in a multi-staged assault that civil rights historian Aldon Morris would dub “a planned exercise in mass disruption.”

In creating an engineered conflict that could capture the national spotlight, King took huge risks. It would have been far easier for an organization of the size and background of the SCLC to turn toward more mainstream lobbying and legal action — much as the NAACP had done. Instead, by following SNCC’s student activists in embracing nonviolent confrontation, SCLC organizers and their local allies created a dramatic clash with segregationists that put the normally hidden injustices of racism on stark public display. King would later write that, in watching marchers defy Bull Connor’s menacing police troops, he “felt there, for the first time, the pride and power of nonviolence.”

Ultimately, King was a follower, not a leader, in cultivating a new tradition of strategic nonviolent action in the United States. Yet acknowledging this shouldn’t diminish his significance. Because when he did commit himself to spearheading the type of broad-based nonviolent protest he had been talking about for years, it resulted in campaigns that profoundly altered the public sense of what measures were needed to uphold civil rights in the United States. The Birmingham model would prove widely influential. Victory in that city sent ripples throughout the country: in the two and a half months after the Birmingham campaign announced a settlement with store owners that commenced desegregation, more than 750 civil rights protests took place in 186 American cities, leading to almost 15,000 arrests.

It took years of deliberation and tremendous determination for Martin Luther King to take such a step. But when he finally did, the result was decisive: King went from being someone who had been repeatedly swept up in the saga of civil rights — a reluctant protagonist in the battle against American apartheid — to someone who shaped history.

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