MLK’s strategy isn’t just nice — it’s also effective

Published 6:33 pm Friday, January 18, 2019

Typically, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is touted in writing and the history books as being a nice person, for his message of meaningful change through non-violence. But that’s only half the story. In addition to being a force for good, King also had a really good strategy that’s been effective in America, and effectively exported abroad, as my students discovered.

During the last two years, students of mine researched a series of groups. Half of them used terrorism, and the other half refrained from violence. Each student researched the goals of the group and the tactics used to achieve the goals. We found that of the groups that used terrorism, less than 15 percent achieved their goals. On the other hand, more than half of the groups that chose the path of non-violence accomplished their goals.

Sure violence grabs headlines. 

NPR reported today on violence by the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, and their attack on a hotel that killed at least 14 Kenyans and one American. Their attack “worked” but al-Shabab will never achieve their goals of dominating the East African country. 

Putting a terror group in charge of your life is asking for trouble. And can any regional or international entity trust a terrorist cell to run a country? They’ll get headlines and kill people, but will never get territory, regime change or a separate homeland.

Meanwhile, people who use Dr. King’s tactics around the world have found far more success. Sure “the Carnation Revolution” won’t get the same number of Google hits as ISIS, but they peacefully toppled the Portuguese military regime that had dominated the country for decades. Al-Qaeda shows up on more Yahoo pages than the Cedar Revolution, but the latter forced the Syrians from their decades-long occupation of Lebanon with peaceful protests, while al-Qaeda isn’t even in control of themselves, much less some meaningful stretch of land.

At a conference in Ecuador where I presented the student work, professors and graduate students challenged me, claiming that terrorism does have political benefits. I was able to counter their arguments, showing that Irish Catholic parties got more from the bargaining table for their people than all the IRA bombs and shootings combined. The Palestinian Liberation Organization only got results when they ended their violence and signed the Oslo Accords. Those Palestinians who went back to terrorism halted all progress and even led the Palestinian people back to their prior ineffective position and hardened Israel’s stance.

One professor challenged me on the subject of Israel, claiming that Jewish terrorists “won” and were even elected to office afterwards. I pointed out that the British were disengaging from their colonies and would have probably left anyway. And the former Irgun leaders lost nearly 10 straight elections during the next 30 years and only won due to scandal in the ruling party, and the decision of their own Likud party to renounce violence, and make peace with Arab neighbors, winning the same award later that Dr. King received for his nonviolent work.

My race and politics class also tested whether or not the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act worked in America. African-American voting rates, victories by candidates running for office and the economic and educational achievements by African-Americans show that progress clearly has been made. King’s followers will continue to press for further reforms using those same strategies.

Our research, which showed the benefits of tactics like Dr. King’s policies, was published in a number of newspapers, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Houston Chronicle and even the website. But students got more than just a like on their resume and a research paper or two for their portfolio. They learned how Dr. King’s work actually works.