Martin Luther King Jr. recorded his struggle with forgiveness in Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Outside the jail Southern pastors were denouncing him as a communist, mobs were yelling “Hang the Nigger!” and policemen were swinging nightsticks at his unarmed supporters. King writes that he had to fast for several days in order to achieve the spiritual discipline necessary for him to forgive his enemies.
By forcing out evil out into the open, King was attempting to tap into a national reservoir of moral outrage. After Selma, Alabama, that outrage flooded its banks. There, mounted troopers spurred their horses at a run into the crowd of marchers, flailing away with their nightsticks, cracking heads and driving bodies to the ground. As whites on the sidelines cheered, the troopers shot tear gas into the hysterical marchers.
Most Americans got their first glimpse of the scene when ABC interrupted its Sunday movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, to show footage. What the viewers saw broadcast live from Alabama bore a horrifying resemblance to what they were watching on film from Nazi Germany. Eight days later President Lyndon Johnson submitted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the U.S. Congress.
King had developed a sophisticated strategy of war fought with grace, not gunpowder. He never refused to meet with his adversaries. He opposed policies but not personalities. Most importantly, he countered violence with nonviolence, and hatred with love. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he exhorted his followers. “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with sour force.”