The influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the founding of Peace Brigades International

Published by Brent Patterson on

When a group of peace activists came together on Grindstone Island (on unceded Algonquin territory in Canada) in 1981, their reflections included readings of passages by Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

That may be why their founding statement for Peace Brigades International notes, “We are building on a rich and extensive heritage of nonviolent action, which no longer can be ignored. This heritage tells us that peace is more than the absence of war.”

It’s possible that King’s writings on peace may have influenced that last sentence.

He said in a sermon in March 1956, “Peace is not merely to absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” And while in a Birmingham jail in April 1963, King wrote critically about “the white moderate [who] prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

King believed that nonviolent resistance and direct action should create tension in order to challenge injustice, or in his own words written while in a jail, “a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

And it may be that King’s words can also be applied to PBI’s accompaniment work.

The Peace Brigades International-Mexico Project has explained, “International accompaniment is used as a tool for conflict transformation, fulfilling the dual role of both protecting victims of human rights violations as well as encouraging human rights defenders to continue their activities in the face of threat.”

“Some sectors of the state in Mexico use the conditions of impunity and corruption to protect and perpetuate their sphere of power.”

“When social and human rights movements question and denounce the consequences of this form of governance, the movements are stigmatized and neutralized in order to protect the interests of those in power.”

PBI-Mexico concludes, “An international presence can contribute to the construction of a new discourse that recognizes the legitimacy of these human rights concerns.”

King was arrested 29 times challenging, as he described in May 1967, “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

The human rights defenders that PBI accompanies face multiple risks for challenging those same issues in the form of violations of Indigenous rights, destructive megaprojects, the denial of territorial and land rights, and paramilitary and state violence.

The heritage and commitment to nonviolent action noted in PBI’s founding statement is also reflected in its Principles and Mandate, first adopted in June 1992 at a Quaker camp near Waubaushene, Ontario (on the ancestral lands of the Wendat, Anishnaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples).

That document states, “PBI believes the philosophy and politics of nonviolence are dynamic and develop historically by those who resist different forms and structures of violence, such as gender and other identity based discriminations, and socio-economic exploitation. Therefore, PBI, with its experience and international presence, endeavours to overcome injustice and violence in order to build a humane society.”

That statement also explains the PBI position on non-partisanship and the approach of not becoming directly involved in the work of those we accompany.

It notes, “Non-partisanship does not mean indifference, neutrality or passivity towards injustice or towards violation of human rights, personal dignity and individual freedom. On the contrary: PBI is fully committed to these values and struggles against violence – physical or structural – as a means of establishing enduring peace.”

The founders of Peace Brigades International were inspired by “a rich and extensive heritage of nonviolent action” and as the global organization approaches its 40th anniversary (on September 4, 2021), it too now offers its own inspiring stories of nonviolent direct action through the accompaniment of at-risk human rights defenders.

Photos of George Willoughby and Steve Kaal at Camp NeeKauNis (about 130 kilometres north of Toronto, Ontario, Canada) where a General Assembly first adopted PBI’s Principles and Mandate statement in June 1992.

Willoughby was a crew member of the Golden Rule, the first peace vessel that sailed into the South Pacific in 1958 to protest atomic testing by the United States. The crew of that boat was arrested 9 kilometres from Honolulu and sentenced to 60 days in jail. That nonviolent action inspired similar actions by members of the Vancouver-based Don’t Make a Wave Committee (which later became Greenpeace in 1971) and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (founded by Canadian Paul Watson in Vancouver in 1977).

Top photo: Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested for loitering on September 3, 1958 in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Charles Moore.

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