For much of one-half century, the policies and ideology of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have been espoused and renounced, adopted and co-opted by practically every socio-political movement the world over. Americans, rightly, consider him as their benevolent representative of peaceful social change—a latter-day Gandhi in terms of reshaping the public landscape—whose brief and fateful sojourn would force this nation to look inward toward a more perfect union.
No longer does America solely celebrate King’s life and work. The world has come to recognize the Nobel Laureate as a clear example of a people’s inevitable conquest over tyranny and injustice. The fall of the Soviet Union, the protests at Tiananmen Square, the Arab Spring and to a lesser degree the Black Lives Matter movement can serve as individual examples—some successful, others less so—of the power and lure of human rights and individual dignity in the face of oppression and discrimination. King worked until his death to illuminate how organization, communication and, most vital to his work, the construct of love of your fellow man can help to overcome even the most entrenched bigotry and racism.
Finding the “Strength to Love”
King’s 1963 book “Strength to Love” is a stellar literary example of how one must have what the opening chapter explains as “A Tough Mind and A Tender Heart.” In this chapter, King spells out why it is so important for any social movement of advancement to develop a strategy of incisive thinking, realistic appraisal and decisive judgment. There were no easy answers during the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone involved in America’s social revolution had to contend with half-truths, false facts and prejudices spewed forth to derail a movement bent on upending the nation’s ingrained subjugation of African Americans. It was only when the Gospels, strikingly juxtaposed with modern-day examples of policies abhorrent to the teachings of Christ, were used as testaments of faith did the walls of injustice begin to crumble and the pathway to freedom become more clearly delineated for not only African Americans but for all oppressed people who yearn for liberty.
King sought to raise America’s consciousness of racism, to end racial discrimination and segregation. While his goal was racial equality, King plotted out a series of smaller objectives that involved local grassroots campaigns for equal rights for African Americans. King was arrested 30 times while serving as the public “face” of civil rights campaigns. He was careful to maintain a public persona that would be acceptable to Whites, ultimately cultivating his image so that people thought of him as a moderate, not as a racial extremist. His moderate image enabled him to actively recruit a crucial mass of White Americans to join the movement; King not only embodied the hopes and dreams of African Americans, but also those of White progressives across the country.
The influence of Gandhi
King excelled in serving as a bridge-builder between different activist groups at a time when Americans were increasingly interested in ideas of liberation and equality. As a civic leader and human rights defender, King drew heavily upon the writings and actions of Mohandas Gandhi for inspiration. His visit to India in 1959 was said to have deeply affected his understanding and adherence to civil disobedience. The non-violent civic activism marked by boycotts, sit-ins, speeches,
sermons and public marches were the result of Gandhi’s model of passive resistance.
“Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity,” he said at the time. King’s forthright belief in passive resistance may have been his best asset because, while many state governments were hostile to the Civil Rights Movement, the civic environment of the United States was favorable for the cause in many ways. While unsympathetic media outlets in the South had little interest in giving King a platform on which to spread his ideas, the national media was largely sympathetic to his goals. In explaining his strategy, King once said, “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
The very title of his popular work, “Strength to Love,” is a powerful request. King is asking if the individual has the capability to “love your enemy” in the face of disappointment. “In these days of worldwide confusion, there is a dire need for men and women who will courageously do battle for truth,” he wrote.“No longer can we afford the luxury of passing by on the other side. Such folly was once called moral failure; today it will lead to universal suicide.”
A treasury of ideas
The latter statement may serve today as strong a rejection of social frustration as they did in 1963. With the advent of Black Lives Matter and its crusade against police shootings of unarmed African Americans, the growing exclusion of Blacks among the employment ranks, disarray in our inner cities, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, many Americans may see the nation as reverting to a time of racial conflict. The nation could do well in looking to King’s work during these days of social upheaval and economic uncertainty. The 2016 election was arguably the most divisive in several generations, and people are struggling to understand what Trump’s presidency will mean for the nation and the world.
Because minority groups were singled out during the campaign and have since experienced discrimination and threats of violence, King’s words from the chapter “The Man Who Was A Fool” may ring remarkably true. He related the parable from the Book of Luke that told the story of a man who was abounded with social prestige and community respectability, one of the privileged few in the economic power structure. And while Jesus never made a sweeping indictment against wealth, he condemned the man’s misuse of power. Think of it. A Galilean peasant with the audacity to call such a powerful man a fool. King explained the man’s folly not because he had made money in a dishonest fashion. He had, after all, worked hard and had the practical know-how and farsighted vision of a good businessman. King said he was a “fool” because he permitted the ends for which he lived to become confused with the means by which he lived. Apparently, the economic structure of his life absorbed his destiny.
“The rich man was a fool because he failed to keep a line of distinction between means and ends, between structure and destiny,” King wrote.“His life was submerged in the rolling waters of his livelihood. He failed to realize he was the heir to a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and dead had contributed. When an individual or a nation overlooks this interdependence, we find a tragic foolishness.”
Seeking a more just America
King would insist that the role of love in engaging individuals and communities in conflict is crucial today. America, he would suggest, must be a more inclusive and just community that does not retreat from diversity but draws strength from it. King focused on the role of love as paramount to building healthy communities and the ways in which love can and should be at the center of our social interactions. For King, love was a key part in creating communities that work for everyone and not just the privileged few at the expense of the many.
Because contemporary discourse has become much more caustic—from the seats of power to basic social interaction—one could confuse love as a mushy or easily dismissed emotion instead of being the bedrock of what the Founding Fathers once envisioned as “domestic tranquility.” King infused love with his actions, relying heavily on the Gospels and specifically how Jesus was able to match words with actions. In the chapter “Love in Action,” King attempts to explain man’s folly in bridging the gap between practice and profession or, more plainly, between saying and doing.
“We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practice the very opposite of the democratic creed,” he wrote. “We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice.” In citing Christ’s prayer from the cross “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” King affirms that this is love at its best.
‘Nothing simplistic about him’
“Contrast this prayer with a society that is even less prone to forgive,” King explained in demonstrating how evil can be overcome with good. It is “blindness,” he postulated, that hinders the American community from reconciling past wrongs and striving for a more inclusive future. As Americans become increasingly divided on issues ranging from immigration to religious tolerance, King’s call for an end to racial segregation tended to predict current pleas for increased compassion and inclusion for everyone from the growing homeless population, the LGBT community, and pro-choice advocates. “This tragic blindness is also found in racial segregation, the not-to-distant cousin of slavery. Pressed for a justification of their belief in the inferiority of the Negro, they turn to some pseudo-scientific writing and argue that the Negro’s brain is smaller than the White man’s brain. They blindly believe in the eternal validity of an evil called segregation and the timeless truth of a myth called White supremacy. With Jesus on the cross, we must look lovingly at our oppressors and say, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’”
On Wednesday, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker testified against fellow Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama in the latter’s confirmation hearing to become the next U.S. Attorney General. Booker believes that Sessions’ lack of support of civil rights and voting rights statutes should disqualify him from the post. A few years ago, Booker gave his thoughts to Ron Claiborne of ABC News on why King made such an indelible mark on the nation and the world.
“King never said ‘I’m marching for Black justice,’ Booker said. “He said ‘I’m marching for justice,’ for justice for our country, for our nation to fulfill its hope and promise that we all have. There’s nothing simplistic about him. He was a person that often went across the grain of our consciousness and forced us into positions of discomfort, so that we could wake up to the larger urgencies of the time. He was not someone seeking racial justice simply. He was looking for a deeper, richer, more textured, just democracy here in the United States of America.”
Celebrated on a bipartisan basis
How would King be characterized within today’s bifurcated social landscape? “Race hustler?” “Poverty pimp?” “Socialist?” “Peacenik?” “American apologist?” In the 49 years since his death and particularly since the advent of King Day, the former preacher is celebrated on a bipartisan basis. Conservatives, in recent years, have tried to claim that King would be one of them. Likely, if he were alive he would be smeared the same way as any other liberal African American leader.
Among the hot-button issues that continue to roil the American body politic, affirmative action may lie at the top of the list. It has become fashionable in recent years to suggest that King favored pure color-blindness, and that affirmative action would have been at cross purposes with his dream. In his 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait,” King wrote that America had some work to do to make up for 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow:
“Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.” Because modern conservatives tend to mark America’s starting line at 1969, everything legally has been more or less fair to African Americans and singling out this community would be a form of reverse racism. Most historians agree that King would have been on the other side of this argument.
A turn toward ‘economic justice’
American unions provided a crucial role of encouragement for the Civil Rights Movement. King was in Memphis, Tenn., when he was assassinated in April 1968 lending support for striking sanitation workers. His presence was part of a broader turn toward “economic justice”—much like today’s push for a higher minimum wage—for all workers regardless of color. In a 1965 speech on the American Dream, King said:
“This is why we must join the war against poverty and believe in the dignity of all work. I’m tired of this stuff about so-called ‘menial labor.’ What makes it menial is that we don’t pay folk anything. Give somebody a job and pay them some money so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life. And no matter what the job is, it takes on dignity.”
In terms of war, the military industrial complex and increasing defense budgets, King was simply against it. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1967 he said:
“This way of settling differences is not just. This business of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
On Black Lives Matter, King would likely be marching with the peaceful protesters and would probably have interrupted your commute home over the issue of police brutality of African Americans. In “Strength to Love,” he touched on the paralyzing facet of fear, when confronting injustice:
“Courage, the determination not to be overwhelmed by any object, however frightful, enables us to stand up to any fear. Courage and cowardice are antithetical. Courage is an inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations; cowardice is a submissive surrender to circumstance. Courage breeds creative self-affirmation; cowardice produces destructive self-abnegation. Courageous men never lose the zest for living even though their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live.”
Martin Luther King’s legacy lives on today. His powers of persuasion, his eloquent presentation and his adamant adherence to love continue to resonate loudly throughout the world.