At King center, a change in times; Nonviolence: The facility born in 1968, the year the civil rights leader was murdered, has quietly abandoned its mission of training new leaders in peaceful resistance.


ATLANTA -- Inside Freedom Hall at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a King quotation anchors the main lobby: "It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence."

Upstairs in the Gandhi Room, King's spiritual mentor is memorialized. "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills," read the enshrined words of India's Mahatma Gandhi.

In the adjoining gift shop, posters, postcards, books, beverage containers and T-shirts are on sale and all marked with the local slogan: "Nonviolence: Learn it. Live it. Teach it."

And outside on the grounds of the historic site, the U.S. Park Service safeguards the tomb of the slain civil rights leader and fields questions from visitors:

Does the center still teach nonviolence?

"To be honest, they're getting out of the nonviolence business," says a park ranger. "It's kind of sad."

In fact, the King center has not conducted nonviolence seminars since 1997. Through vivid exhibits, the center still chronicles the nation's civil rights movement led by King and others. But its outreach missions -- namely the nonviolence seminars typically conducted in the summers -- are now footnotes in the history of the King center.

This is not the same King center born and bred by Coretta Scott King in 1968 -- the year her husband was assassinated. Times, missions and personnel have changed.

Dexter King, at 37 the second-youngest of the four King children, succeeded his mother as president and chief executive in 1996. To repackage his father's message, Dexter King's plans have involved a Web site on the Internet, CD-ROMs of Dr. King's speeches and intellectual property rights -- the basis for a multimedia publishing deal between the King heirs and Time Warner Inc. Nonviolence classes were not part of the revised plan.

"Once Dexter King took over, he came to the conclusion the King center should not focus on direct programs on its own," says Clayborne Carson, a friend of King's and editor of "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr." "He asked, 'Why should we be doing things others could do better?' "

There simply wasn't the money to support programs such as nonviolence classes. Remember, Carson also says, the King center's leading fund-raiser -- Coretta King -- retired. For the King center to survive financially, its leaders chose to streamline its mission and make business deals. Dexter King was unavailable for comment.

For example, under the 1997 agreement with Time Warner, the King estate expects an estimated $10 million a year, the New York Times reported. Time Warner publishes Dr. King's "The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr." (Warner Books, $25). Carson, also director of the King Papers Project, had accepted Coretta King's offer to edit a posthumous autobiography of Dr. King based on his articles, speeches, sermons and letters.

The 1998 autobiography is a window into Dr. King's evolving fascination with and devotion to the philosophy of nonviolence. Readers learn how as a young seminary student, Dr. King first became drawn to the teachings of Gandhi.

"Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships," Dr. King wrote. "But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.

"It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking."

In April 1963, as Dr. King sat in the Birmingham, Ala., city jail after being arrested for "parading without a permit," he wrote a lengthy letter to Birmingham ministers who had publicly criticized the demonstrations in Birmingham. In the letter, Dr. King recites the four basic steps of a nonviolent campaign: "collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action."

Before the demonstrations, "we began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: 'Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?' 'Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?' " Dr. King wrote. He could also have added: Were demonstrators prepared to be blasted with water hoses and set upon by police dogs? Were they willing to "turn the other cheek" and "love thy neighbor" in the face of bottomless hatred?

In the letter, Dr. King further explained why social reform through nonviolence (marches, sit-ins) can dramatize an issue until it can no longer be ignored: "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue."

Dr. King's writings on nonviolence (edited and built into a narrative) are all there -- at the gift shop, shelved next to "Nonviolence" beverage containers, T-shirts and bank machines. If visitors want to learn about nonviolence, read the book. The King center's mission statement -- "research, education and training in nonviolent philosophy and strategy" -- is clearly outdated.

"I think it's a loss," says the Rev. J. M. Lawson, "for the King center to no longer hold conferences, workshops, seminars and lectures around the theology and methodology of King. It's a mistake."

Lawson, 70, has taught nonviolence for nearly 50 years and was a contemporary of Dr. King's during the civil rights movement. "Nonviolence means having a spirit of nonretaliation. You are trying to live by and express compassion and unconditional love," says Lawson, a Methodist minister in Los Angeles.

"Nonviolence works because it's on the side of truth and on the side of God," says Lawson.

Despite the center's decision to stop teaching nonviolence, Lawson says, "the fact is many people have caught the vision and have been spreading the seeds of nonviolence in colleges and universities."

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, has worked in the field of nonviolence for 20 years. He developed a course called "Alternatives to Violence," which is based on essays by Dr. King, Gandhi, Tolstoy and others. He lectures at schools in hopes that courses in nonviolence will become part of the curriculum. Because, as McCarthy believes, the need for nonviolence is not outdated.

"If our political leaders keep telling us violence is the No. 1 problem in the country -- and it is -- then it ought to be a moral obligation to teach alternatives to violence," McCarthy says.

As for the King center, "I'm sure it's inspirational," McCarthy says, "but if you really want to get out the ideas of Gandhi and King, you have to go into the schools. And that requires a lot of energy, legwork and headwork."

It does not require, so it seems, a gift shop.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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