Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader in the nonviolent struggle for civil rights. Even so, some gun rights advocates claim King stockpiled guns in his home. King at one time did own a pistol for protection. Denied a permit for concealed carry, he left the gun at home. In addition, armed watchmen guarded King’s house after a firebombing.
That certainly is contrary to King’s image as an advocate of nonviolence. However, King did later say, “How could I serve as one of the leaders of a nonviolent movement and at the same time use weapons of violence for my personal protection?” King changed his mind about guns and decided to commit himself to nonviolence as a way of life. Who helped him do that?
Meet Bayard Rustin
King was arguably the most significant American of the 20th century. Behind this great man stood many other great men. But few know about one man in particular who was an early mentor. So, let’s meet Bayard Rustin.
Rustin was an openly gay black man and fierce proponent of peace and equal rights. He was an early leader of the civil rights movement, joining the Freedom Riders in the 1940s, and he is considered one of the movement’s leading strategists behind the civil rights legislative and judicial victories of the early 1960s. He was known as the civil rights’ top organizer, organizing such events as the March on Washington and the New York City School Boycott.
Rustin deserves to be better known, if only because he introduced Gandhian nonviolence to the African-American civil rights movement.
Rustin was among the most famous advocates of Gandhian nonviolence in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Mahatma once summoned him to a conference in India. Beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he served as key adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., giving him the chance to train Dr. King in the philosophy of nonviolence as a way of life.
Persuading MLK to give up his gun
According to Rustin, “I think it’s fair to say that Dr. King’s view of non-violent tactics was almost non-existent when the [bus] boycott began. In other words, Dr. King was permitting himself and his children and his home to be protected by guns.”
There is an interesting story about how Rustin convinced King to abandon the armed protection, including his personal handgun.
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. “Watch out, Bill, there’s a gun on that chair,” the startled Rustin warned. He and King stayed up late that night arguing about whether armed self-defense in the home could end up damaging the movement.
Nonviolence as a way of life
King soon came around to the position earlier advocated by Gandhi—that black Americans could use nonviolent resistance as a strategy for social change. Rustin’s time spent in India working with Gandhi’s nonviolent movement prepared him to teach King about the tactic. Later, when King and his wife Coretta toured India, he said “To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim. Indeed, King was a follower, not a leader, in this new tradition of strategic nonviolent action in the United States. This might easily not have happened without the influence of Bayard Rustin. With his help, Martin Luther King came to adopt nonviolence as a way of life.