By coincidence I just finished reading (listening to, actually: I'm on an audiobook kick) Taylor Branch's trilogy about the King years. The books shy away from commentary or analysis (to a fault, really) and just focus on the details of 'who did what' as King led the Civil Rights movement. But that allows the reader to draw conclusions on their own, so, as it's MLK day, here are some of my own.
MLK has become one of those larger than life figures which, ironically, makes him harder to appreciate. We know he's admirable, but probably find it difficult to relate to him a personal level. I think this is because his main message was actually pretty abstract, amazingly so for someone who achieved such cultural prominence.
When you think of Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael, their message was rational and straightforward: 'We are being denied what's rightfully ours, it's time we take what we deserve, and if someone tries to deny us, we will fight them.' That makes sense, right?
But King's philosophy of nonviolence demanded a larger perspective. He was asking his followers to go out and get beat up, over and over again. Without fighting back. Who does that? In hindsight of course this actually makes a lot of sense, if only on a crassly political level. Whites had all the power, so fighting them wasn't going to get you anywhere. You would lose. You had to convince them to change.
But I've come to realize that that's too limited an interpretation of what King was up to. It wasn't just that he had gamed out the system and realized this was the only way to achieve his goals (although that was surely true). Nonviolence was more than just a strategy for King, it was a life philosophy. A philosophy ultimately rooted in spirituality.
Towards the end of King's life it became fashionable to talk about "love" in popular culture. Many of my favorite bands were writing songs that weren't just about romantic love, but love in a larger sense of the word. And of course girls on Laugh-In had the word written in body paint over their scantily clad bodies. But King was really living that ethos, and had been for a long time. The philosophy of nonviolence was rooted in love.
That might be hard to comprehend, until you realize it is ultimately a spiritual world view, based on the teachings of Jesus. This is a big part of why King was able to convince so many African Americans to follow his lead, because, while they were denied so much in formal education, the one kind of education they did have was Bible study. So they could see the spiritual link that he was talking about.
Here are some extended excerpts from a sermon King gave in 1957 that explain his philosophy much better than I can:
In the fifth chapter of the gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: "Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven."
Certainly these are great words, words lifted to cosmic proportions. And over the centuries, many persons have argued that this is an extremely difficult command. Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth. So the arguments abound. But far from being an impractical idealist, Jesus has become the practical realist. The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
The Greek language has three words for love, interestingly enough. It talks about love as eros. That’s one word for love. Eros is a sort of, aesthetic love. Plato talks about it a great deal in his dialogues, a sort of yearning of the soul for the realm of the gods. And it’s come to us to be a sort of romantic love, though it’s a beautiful love. Everybody has experienced eros in all of its beauty when you find some individual that is attractive to you and that you pour out all of your like and your love on that individual. That is eros, you see, and it’s a powerful, beautiful love that is given to us through all of the beauty of literature; we read about it.
Then the Greek language talks about philia, and that’s another type of love that’s also beautiful. It is a sort of intimate affection between personal friends. And this is the type of love that you have for those persons that you’re friendly with, your intimate friends, or people that you call on the telephone and you go by to have dinner with, and your roommate in college and that type of thing. It’s a sort of reciprocal love. On this level, you like a person because that person likes you. You love on this level, because you are loved. You love on this level, because there’s something about the person you love that is likeable to you. This too is a beautiful love. You can communicate with a person; you have certain things in common; you like to do things together. This is philia.
The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, "Love your enemy." And it’s significant that he does not say, "Like your enemy." Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Love your enemy."
There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn’t the way."
And oh this morning, as I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution. Our nation is facing a revolution, our nation. One of the things that concerns me most is that in the midst of the revolution of the world and the midst of the revolution of this nation, that we will discover the meaning of Jesus’ words.
History unfortunately leaves some people oppressed and some people oppressors. And there are three ways that individuals who are oppressed can deal with their oppression. One of them is to rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh this isn’t the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves. And I’ve said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence isn’t the way.
Another way is to acquiesce and to give in, to resign yourself to the oppression. Some people do that. They discover the difficulties of the wilderness moving into the promised land, and they would rather go back to the despots of Egypt because it’s difficult to get in the promised land. And so they resign themselves to the fate of oppression; they somehow acquiesce to this thing. But that too isn’t the way because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.
But there is another way. And that is to organize mass non-violent resistance based on the principle of love. It seems to me that this is the only way as our eyes look to the future. As we look out across the years and across the generations, let us develop and move right here. We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way.
-MLK (Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 November 1957.)
King spent as much time, if not more, arguing and persuading other black people that nonviolence was the way to go as he did with whites over Civil Rights. Many of those fighting for Civil Rights had a hard time accepting King's vision for affecting change. Towards the end of his life especially King's ideas were trending out of fashion, in favor of a more militant approach (Black Panthers, etc.).
But King was right, and it's amazing that he held sway for so long, given what a hard sell it was. By convincing so many people to follow his vision he averted what was at the time actually a very real possibility: a full scale race war. I don't think many people understand how close we came to that catastrophe. We were on the verge.
MLK knew what a disaster that would be. But he also knew that for a century white people had been content to push race problems 'out of sight, out of mind.' Change would have to be forced. Nonviolence was a way of putting the race problem front and center in the minds of the public, without starting a race war.
I'm generally averse to "great man" theories of history. I think most history is the product of social and economic forces, and that we use "great men" because they make for a better story. Certainly the Civil Rights movement was a force far beyond MLK's powers. But in this case I do believe he shaped the movement in an absolutely crucial way. He helped channel the anger and frustrations of black people into actions that actually made the world a better place, at a time when things could have so quickly spiraled out of control.
And, ultimately, he did not defeat his enemies. He redeemed them.