There are many people who possess cowardly ways that the definition ending the last paragraph adequately describes, but Dr. King isn't one of them. He was a fearless man who was no fool. He certainly did his absolute best to maintain non-violent civil disobedience as a principle in the civil rights movement, but as the struggle advanced, he was forced to accept the reality that non-violence, as a principle, was not a philosophy based in the material conditions in this country.
Kwame Ture, formally Stokely Carmichael was one of Dr. King's friends and political contemporaries. Ture was the chairperson of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC, particularly after Ture became its leader, played a crucial role in providing extensive political pressure towards King to force him towards taking more militant positions. SNCC understood that King was a principled man and that meant he would challenge himself over the ideas SNCC was pushing him to consider. There's no question that Kwame and SNCC played a role in helping King develop and articulate his clear and principled position against the Vietnam war. It was SNCC that helped King continue, up to his death, to refuse to denounce the emerging Black Power movement that his young friend Kwame Ture was the poster child for. But, it would be a historical error to credit SNCC with all of King's advancing militancy. As was stated, King was no fool. He interpreted and understood the conditions that were prevalent all around him. And, there is ample evidence that on his own, King began to question the sanity of accepting non-violence as a principle.
By saying something is a principle what you are saying is no matter what, you will continue that value. You will never question it. Examples are people who are principally committed to Christian or Muslim doctrines. People who are committed to revolutionary principles like anti-capitalism. For those people, nothing can ever sway them to betray their beliefs. That's what's meant by principles. For years, King did proudly reiterate that non-violence was a principle for him and that it had to be a principle in the civil rights movement, but this was a King that was forced by this backward system to question those beliefs.
During his tenure as a prominent civil rights leader, King was faced with thousands of death threats against him and his family. He was victimized by repeated physical attacks against him, his home, and his family. He was forced to witness the brutal murder of dozens of civil rights workers and he and many, many others were forced to endure savage treatment by those who were supposed to uphold the law. And this treatment was meted out simply because King and others were trying to perform acts of justice. King knew that the multitudes of Southern police were either white supremacists, sympathetic to them, or unwilling to stand up against them. He knew that the masses of whites felt that they could enact any measure of violence against African people and King understood that once they did, it was almost certain that no consequences would result against the racist acts. All of this constant terror made it increasingly difficult for him to continue to frame non-violence as a moral issue. SNCC, in the words of Kwame Ture, answered that when Ture said morality is a strong tool, but its only effective when your enemy has a conscience and in the case of the U.S., it has none. These were realities King came to a place he could not ignore and this forced him to quietly change some of his practices within the movement.
During the turn to militancy by SNCC, they began to articulate non-violence more and more as a tactic and not a principle, separating them from the philosophies of Dr. King. SNCC members were more often armed than not. And, in many instances, SNCC organized campaigns, like the Loundes County Freedom Organization (the original Black Panther Party), in Alabama in 1965, that served as examples that Africans would continue to uphold the age old tradition we had in the Southern U.S. of defending ourselves and self reliance. These were principles that existed much deeper than non-violence. And, despite the efforts of King and the power structure to portray (and continue to portray) the movement as 100% non-violence, the period around the Loundes County organization changed the landscape around this question. The cry for Black Power if anything, was a statement that we as African people will define our own destiny and in many ways our ability to defend ourselves was a significant element of that phenomenon.
The Deacons for Defense was a group of primarily former military veterans. People who served in Wold War II and the Korean war. That meant they were people who were trained in firearms usage and they were disciplined. Sick and tired of seeing African people brutalized for simply standing up for our humanity, this group was formed in Louisiana in 1964 to protect civil rights workers and the African community. For the March against Fear through Mississippi in June of 1966 (the Black Power march), the Deacons were prevalent on the march. Several times they prevented white terrorists from committing acts of violence. And, their method of doing so wasn't singing "We shall Overcome." Ernest Thomas, one of the founders of the Deacons captured international attention during the march. The marchers were having one of many rallies that happened along the march route. As was typical, the rally was taunted by scores of Southern white supremacists who saw their role as that of threatening the marchers with vulgarities, spitting on people, and doing their best to provoke violence. Thomas, after being permitted to speak by SNCC who invited the Deacons to participate on the march, spoke directly to the rednecks gathered outside the rally. He told them if any European shot towards the march they would receive return fire and that violence against our people would not be tolerated without retaliation. Those white people present showed respect for a language being spoken to them that they could understand. There were no acts of violence against the marchers that night. The Deacons and their presence made Kwame Ture's cry for "Black Power" seem like a sign of the future for whites nervous about what would happen in this country. King was not unaware of all of these developments.
Despite repeatedly pressure from the other civil rights leaders like Roy Wilkins (NAACP) and Whitney Young (Urban League) to denounce the Deacons and insist they no longer participate in the march, King refused to do so. At some point during this time King had actually succumbed to pressure from close associates in his organization, as well as his wife Coretta, and SNCC organizers, to accept personal protection from the Deacons. Having survived many attempts against his life and understanding the terror facing the movement, King eventually submitted to the demands and that represented him accepting Charles Sims as his personal bodyguard. Sims was an original Deacon and he was everything King's original principle of non-violence did not represent. Sims had a long criminal record. He had been arrested several times for barroom brawling. He carried a 45 pistol with him long before he became a Deacon and he was known to be willing to pull that pistol without the slightest hesitation. Becoming a Deacon was a baptism into the struggle for Sims and it gave him a mission in life that he had spent all his previous years floundering to find. He approached his role as Dr. King's bodyguard with great dedication and enthusiasm. Despite the utter contempt the established civil rights leaders like Wilkins and Young had for the Deacons in general, and Sims in particular, King was defiant in his commitment to having Sim's protection at all times. In fact, Kwame Ture and other SNCC cadre recalled fondly how King came to a point where if he was going to go somewhere, he instinctively began to make sure Sims was there to accompany him. This became such predictable behavior from King that SNCC members joked with him constantly about it.
That is an important and truthful frame from which to view Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not from the point from which he started with the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1955, but where he was when he was killed on that balcony on April 4th, 1968. That King of 1968 was a clear anti-imperialist who was the most prominent leader of the anti-war protest within the U.S. That King was critical of the emerging urban rebellions, but refused to denounce the emerging militancy in the movement itself. That King was often seen wearing a Black Power button during that latter period of his life. That King did have a permit to carry a pistol during that latter period of his life. And, that King did welcome and appreciate the presence of the brawling Charles Sims in everything and everywhere that he went. It should be noted that the fatal trip King took to Memphis had him shielded from those militant elements like Sims. And, although no harm to ever came to King whenever Sims was with him, no one like Sims was present with King when he was killed. What we do know is one of those persons who was present was more than likely a paid FBI informant against King. The now public FBI files reveal that the informant's name was "Agent A" and that this person received financial compensation after King's death.
What is almost impossible to refute is King came to his demise not because he wanted integration. He was killed because he was an uncompromising and committed soldier for justice. He was unafraid of the capitalist white power structure and he was willing to risk his life to engage in that work. And, yes, in that journey that he was engaged in, Dr. King came to a point where his actions confirmed that he saw non-violence as a tactic, not a principle. Despite his unwillingness to say this in public, it was clear that was where he had landed. Even if people reading this don't accept that, I'd argue that the fact the power structure killed him was proof that they were worried about it, even if you don't believe it.