Bringing Dr. King’s Message to a New Generation

by Terry Messman

This is how a legacy is passed on to a new generation: Martin Luther King gave his life spreading the message of nonviolence. After he was assassinated, Bernard Lafayette picked up the fallen torch, and passed it on to Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis. Now they are sharing this vision with the next generation.

Kazu Haga (left) holds a nonviolence workshop; East Bay Meditation Center; Courtney Supple and Rebecca Speert listen.

Over the past year, the Positive Peace Warrior Network has conducted workshops in the strategy, philosophy, and ethical values of “Kingian Nonviolence” for more than one thousand people, including high school students, grandparents, prisoners in local jails, young people of color living in dangerous neighborhoods, Occupy activists, and organizers involved in many social change movements.

The Positive Peace Warrior Network (PPWN) defines “Positive Peace” as peace with justice for all because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught that, “peace is not only the absence of violence, but the presence of justice.”

I first became aware of the work of PPWN organizers Jonathan Lewis and Kazu Haga during last winter’s Occupy movement when they played a highly principled role by advocating for nonviolent social change at a time of great controversy over tactics in Occupy. In the next few months, PPWN organizers gave workshops in Kingian Nonviolence to a total of about 300 Occupy activists, including people active with Occupy Oakland, Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Seattle, Occupy Providence, and Occupy Wall Street.

Now, in the Bay Area, the Occupy movement has apparently fallen into one of those low ebbs that seem to occur periodically throughout the history of social change movements. Yet, PPWN and many other groups are still working with great dedication to keep the spirit of justice alive.

The dedication of people like Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis gives the lie to one of the most deceptive media myths of our era. This prevalent myth holds that even though countercultural youth rose up in rebellion to war and racism in the 1960s, the fiery spirit that once animated their dissent has long since been extinguished and is now irrelevant.

This myth has clouded our vision and made us believe that young people see the civil rights and peace movements as historical curiosities and little more. Yet those of us who have attended high-spirited events organized by the Positive Peace Warrior Network in the Bay Area have witnessed groups of fired-up and dedicated young activists describe their own work for human rights and peace and justice.

Perhaps that should not come as such a surprise, given the fantastic organizing by thousands of young activists this past year that created one of the most significant social-change movements of our time — the Occupy movement. Even though Occupy has, at least temporarily, lost some of its energy and sense of direction, the young people who gave birth to it are still doing the very serious work of reflection and analysis and movement building.

One dedicated organizer still working to build a stronger and more principled movement is Kazu Haga, 31, a Japanese-American activist who was trained in nonviolent resistance by his mentors, Dr. Bernard Lafayette and Jonathan Lewis.

As a key organizer of the Positive Peace Warrior Network, Kazu has conducted workshops in Kingian Nonviolence for several hundred activists this past year, including such disparate groups as academics and anarchists, faith leaders and prisoners, senior citizens and high-school students, longtime activists and those who have never attended a demonstration.

The message of Kingian Nonviolence can be traced in an historical line from the civil rights organizers of the Southern freedom movement in the 1950s, through the anti-Vietnam War struggles of the 1960s, on through the anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid movements of the 1980s, all the way to today’s young Occupy activists.

Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community helped to inspire all of those movements, and Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis formed the Positive Peace Warrior Network to pass that all-important message on to the next generation.

On the morning of April 4, 1968, a few hours before his assassination, Martin Luther King met with Bernard Lafayette at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis to discuss strategic details of the Poor People’s Campaign they were planning. At the end of the meeting, King abruptly shifted gears and told Lafayette of a vitally important new mission that he saw as the next step for the movement.

On his last morning on earth, Rev. King said: “Now, Bernard, the next movement we’re going to have is to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.” That one momentous sentence set the course for Dr. Lafayette’s entire life.

In the aftermath of King’s assassination, his last words echoed with such fateful significance that Lafayette made it his life’s work to carry the message of nonviolence to the world. In an interview with Street Spirit, Dr. Lafayette explained the deeper meaning of his life’s work: “The reason I went and prepared myself for this work is because I wanted to make sure that those who attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King’s dream — missed.”

In the decades since King’s murder, Lafayette has conducted nonviolent trainings for thousands of activists all over the world, taught courses in nonviolent conflict resolution in universities and seminaries, and created peace education programs in the academic world.

Kazu Haga is one of the thousands of people who have attended Dr. Lafayette’s nonviolence training. In an interview with Street Spirit, Kazu said, “The way Kingian Nonviolence has been handed down to us is that it’s essentially Dr. Martin Luther King’s final marching orders.”

The Positive Peace Warrior Network has worked especially hard to ensure that the youth of today learn about the philosophy and vision of Kingian Nonviolence.

In Chicago, the PPWN conducted nonviolence trainings in North Lawndale College Prep High School, resulting in the school reporting a 90 percent reduction in violence since they began working with them.

In Oakland, the PPWN has worked with low-income and at-risk youth, including those who were gang-involved, formerly incarcerated, or homeless. Jonathan and Kazu have worked with a collaborative of youth organizations — including Youth Spirit Artworks, BAY-Peace, and Youth Alive — to introduce Kingian Nonviolence into the ongoing work of those groups.

Sally Hindman, executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks in Berkeley, said that their workshops in nonviolence have been tremendously helpful to the youth in her group who live in dangerous neighborhoods where street violence and police repression are ever-present realities.

“The Positive Peace Warrior Network has been transformative for the lives of our youth,” she said. “It really turned their way of thinking upside down. They were just completely enthralled by the training.”

Hindman said the youth in her group had been turned off by nonviolent trainings given by more “middle-class” organizations and found them alienating and irrelevant. But Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis spoke to the youth in their own language so they could really relate to them.

“Kazu and Jonathan have been around the block,” Hindman said. “They know from their own experience what nonviolence is about, and they know what life on the street is about. They totally get it. So when they talk to our youth, they’re completely coming from the place our youth are coming from. It’s the difference between night and day.”

One of the most powerful insights the youth gained was a fresh way of looking at the vision and commitment of Dr. King.

“ I think our youth were blown away by this fresh analysis and this fresh approach to talking about who Dr. King was,” said Hindman. “I think Martin Luther King gets served up to all of us now in a very sanitized way that even Republicans can use.

“But Jonathan and Kazu are bringing Dr. King back to life. They’re really talking about what King has to say that can change the lives of youth right now, and he is calling them to radical nonviolence to save a whole population of young people.”

As a young man, David Hartsough took part in the lunch counter sit-ins in the early days of the civil rights movement, and he marched with Martin Luther King and Ralph David Abernathy. Later, as a staff organizer for the American Friends Service Committee, Hartsough conducted countless nonviolent trainings himself.

At present, Hartsough is the director of Peaceworkers and the co-founder of Nonviolent Peace Force, and he has already experienced nearly every variation of nonviolence training imaginable.

Yet Hartsough was so inspired by the workshop in Kingian Nonviolence given by Jonathan and Kazu, that he has taken their training twice in the past year.

Hartsough said, “Kazu is a young person of color who has been very active in the Occupy movement’s people of color caucus and the young people’s caucus and the nonviolence caucus. I think he has been doing everything he can to infuse an understanding of nonviolence in the broader movement. Kazu has taken seriously what Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and other nonviolent leaders have said throughout history, that for movements to be powerful — not only morally powerful but also strategically effective — it’s important to operate from a very clear and strong nonviolent perspective.”

Hartsough said he especially appreciated Kazu’s role last winter when Occupy Oakland was undergoing deep divisions between those who advocated nonviolence and those calling for a “diversity of tactics.”

“What is really impressive is that Kazu is not just studying King, but putting his life into helping deepen the understanding of Kingian Nonviolence by people in the movement,” Hartsough said. “He is doing all this to follow his conscience and his heart and put nonviolence into practice.”

Asked to name the people who have most inspired him, Kazu quickly lists Martin Luther King, Bernard Lafayette, and his mother Maoko, who gave him a belief in compassion and service. Another inspiration is Nichidatsu Fujii (known as Fujii Guruji) a Japanese Buddhist monk who founded Nipponzan Myohoji, a Buddhist order known for its work in building Peace Pagodas and going on peace pilgrimages all over the world.

When he was 17, Kazu was adrift on the streets until the monks and nuns of Nipponzan Myohoji “took me under their wing.” He traveled with them to India and lived in their monastic order for a year and a half, doing everything from heavy construction work while building Peace Pagodas, to peace walks in Cambodia, and volunteer work in Sri Lanka.

The experience was formative in the young man’s life. “That’s how I came into all this work in nonviolence,” he said of his involvement with the Buddhist order.

Kazu talks with great enthusiasm about the unfinished work of transforming the world into the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King dreamed of creating.

This is how a legacy is entrusted to a new generation: Martin Luther King gave his very life to spreading the message of nonviolence. Bernard Lafayette picked up the fallen torch of Kingian Nonviolence after King was murdered, and passed it on as a living legacy to Jonathan Lewis and Kazu Haga. Now Jonathan and Kazu are on a mission to offer a vision of the beloved community to the next generation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Terry Messman is the editor and designer of Street Spirit, a street newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee and sold by homeless vendors in Berkeley, Oakland, and Santa Cruz, California; and as well editor of the website with the same me. He has been for the past 13 years the program coordinator for the AFSC’s Homeless Organizing Project. We are grateful to Terry Messman and Street Spirit for permission to post this article.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi